Last April, when the Yale College Council asked then-President Richard Levin to publicly support lowering the drinking age, the student body laughed. It was absurd, silly, ill-timed. It wouldn’t happen, we thought — and if it did, our voice would certainly sink in the big pond of national politics.

Geng Ngarmboonanant_Karen Tian

But after the inauguration of Peter Salovey — who has since used his pulpit to speak out on federal issues like immigration, research funding and wealth inequality — we should no longer laugh too hard. The YCC’s proposal was not preposterous; in fact, it is now right. If our president is indeed serious about making Yale “a leader in reducing high-risk drinking” — which he said just this past week — then he cannot duck when it comes to fully committing our school to the big fight on the national stage.

The merits of lowering the drinking age are relatively clear. We know that college students drink. But the current law drives college students “underground” to consume alcohol, like when students take shots in quick succession in dorm rooms. The current drinking age also edges students toward other illegal activities, such as purchasing fake IDs in order to enter bars and clubs. What’s more, 21 is a false threshold for maturity, if such a threshold even exists. Last year’s alcohol report, which surveyed over 2,000 Yale students, found that upperclassmen actually drink more irresponsibly than younger students. Seniors, the report found, more frequently engaged in binge drinking than any other class.

It is telling, then, that Yale acts as if all students were able to openly drink. Our programs are created with the purpose of mitigating the dangers of drinking, not stopping alcohol consumption itself. Freshmen take a skit-based online course before they arrive, as well as attend orientation meetings designed to acclimate them to the drinking scene. For all current students, the Dean’s Office even offers a “bartending class” to teach us how to serve alcohol and intervene effectively.

If we already act as if all of campus were of drinking age, why wouldn’t we support a change in the law? Our effort to deal with the reality of underage drinking clashes with our duty to teach students to respect existing laws. Indeed, one cannot wholly advocate for both abstinence and protection.

An 18-year-old drinking age — or 19-year-old, in order to avoid legal drinking by high school seniors — would complete the circuit in our “safety first” alcohol strategy. If we do choose to go ahead and announce our support for change, it would not be hard. Our school will not be alone.

In fact, we would be joining a group of 136 colleges, including Dartmouth and Duke, who are signatories of the Amethyst Initiative. Amethyst — which means “not intoxicated” in Greek — is a coalition of college presidents who urge a reconsideration of the national drinking age. They may not be able to battle Mothers Against Drunk Driving singlehandedly, but it is certainly a beginning.

While there are limitations to what a university can do, we have seen that Yale’s half-a-million lobbying budget can change things. In 2007, Richard Jacob, the University lobbyist, led the opposition against proposed academic research restrictions on international students, which had been discussed in the Bush administration as a potential response to the 9/11 attacks. Jacob, along with a coalition of universities, orchestrated a campaign against the proposal, which included phone calls, mail, policy statements and meetings. In the end, the proposal never became law.

To say that we are ineffective — that our words don’t matter, especially when joined by hundreds of peer schools — is a vast understatement.

The time is perfect for change. This fall, the University Council Committee on Alcohol, which is made up of five university officials and five alcohol experts, will recommend major reforms to our school’s alcohol policies and programs. Among these recommendations should be public University support for a lower drinking age. Otherwise, the inherent contradiction in our alcohol strategy will never be fully resolved.

In the end, the drinking age is not simply an issue of our right to choose. It is a matter of policy inconsistency. In this country, a 19-year-old can choose to risk her life on a battlefield but cannot take a sip of beer. At this school, the law prohibits us from fully enforcing alcohol safety, no matter how effective our program. As all economists know, inconsistencies lead to real costs. In this case, the biggest cost is not financial — it is personal, and it results in injuries, hospitalizations and damaged lives.

Geng Ngarmboonanant is a junior in Silliman College. Contact him at wishcha.ngarmboonanant@yale.edu .

  • mpwolner

    “It is telling, then, that Yale acts as if all students were able to openly drink.” What Yale do you go to? Because I’ve seen people given underage drinking citations for drinking quietly in their suite, people who live in houses where minors were served excommed for parties they weren’t even present for, and a group of administrators that continues to insist that the best change for alcohol policy at Yale is to make the punishments more severe.

  • hrsn

    Back to 18 for drinking. It would solve a number of problems this article outlines. (Though at an increase in highway accidents, to be sure. Not something to ignore….). If you can fight and you can vote, you should be able to drink.

  • Robin

    I’m a 56 year old mother of four boys 18-31. The drinking age was 18 when I was in college and it should be now…or maybe better 19 to minimize high school access to alcohol.

    Aternatively, if the age for drinking, gambling and all the other fun stuff is going to remain at 21 then that should be the age of consent…until then an 18 year old cannot be treated as an adult in court, medical decisions and the list goes on. An adult is an adult with all the priveledges that accompany adulthood.

    My son told me that while at IU the campus police would board the ‘drunk’ bus to ticket anyone under 21 who had been drinking. The bus was made available to keep students from driving drunk…free ride back to your dorm. So the unintended consequence is that underage kids who had been drinking stayed the hell away from the bus. Kind of defeated the purpose.

    Hopefull, I taught my kids how to drink responsibly. I know full well that they all drank in college and the youngest will as well. I also know that so far they have all made wise choices.

    Good luck to you…keep up the fight.

  • Bob Parkman

    Psychologists recently defined adolescence to extend to the age of 25. Drinking, driving and voting privileges should align with that, if we believe their new definition.

    Of course, since the legal age of adulthood is 18, all rights and responsibilities of adulthood should be available then.

  • fishydude

    No drinking age at home under parental supervision. 16 in public with parents, 18 without parents.
    Taking away the taboo is a sure step toward more responsible behavior around alcohol. Works in Europe where they mostly have no drinking age. It is about the only thing they get right over there.

  • Southern Yankee

    I am a 63 year father of two lovely girls. Even though it was illegal my girls were allowed to drink at 18 at home. I was allowed to drink in my state at 18. Neighboring states had 21 as the legal drinking age. There was predictable carnage on the road. The law needs to be nationwide (against most of my libertarian, states rights opinions). If you are legally responsible at 18 and serve in the military at 18, vote at 18 you should have the option of drinking at 18. Otherwise it is the controlling nanny state taking away something only because of age. Sad.