As college students usher in the start of a new term with beer pong and keg stands, the nation revisits what's now a fixture of collegiate life: drinking age laws.
An increasing number of college officials are arguing that current drinking laws have failed. Instead of keeping students away from alcohol, they argue, the laws simply drive underage drinking underground and toward unsafe extremes.
Leading the debate for change is John M. McCardell, Jr., president emeritus of Vermont's Middlebury College, who proposes rolling back the legal drinking age from 21 to 18 after granting "drinking licenses" to those who complete an extensive alcohol education program.
McCardell recently founded "Choose Responsibility," a nonprofit organization dedicated to lowering the drinking age and researching the effects of the current law. He says his proposal will "bring alcohol back out into the open, acknowledge that 18-year-olds are adults in the eyes of the law [as they are] in every other respect, and it will reduce the abusive drinking that has become so widespread in the last 20 years."
McCardell said he was tired of facing what he called "two impossible choices" between policing and ignoring drinking on campus. The drinking age law, he contends, has only increased binge drinking by pushing alcohol use into hiding.
And when students drink, increasingly they're turning to hard liquor.
"The pattern of drinking has changed and gotten worse, that's where I agree with [McCardell]," said Dr. David Anderson, director for Advancement of Public Health at George Mason University and an expert on college alcohol use. While he opposes lowering the drinking age, he said "the pattern has gotten more high risk."
Two recent studies by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention find that underage binge drinkers are turning to hard liquor as their main alcohol source, unlike adults who rely more often on beer. Liquors such as vodka are easy to smuggle in water bottles, and make it easier to get drunk.
But some public health researchers say the data do not support McCardell's claim.
"I don't know where he gets his data from, but I like to base mine on facts," said Dr. Henry Wechsler, a researcher at Harvard School of Public Health, and a leading expert on college binge drinking.
Binge drinking has remained level at 44 percent among college students for 10 years, according to Wechsler's most recent study in 2001. He thinks lowering the drinking age would worsen the problem "like pouring gasoline on a fire."
"It seems that [McCardell] has found that there are leaks in the boat, and that the way to cure it is to knock out the bottom of the boat," he said.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving also opposes lowering the drinking age. The says it believes the change would increase the number of young drinkers getting behind the wheels of their vehicles.
"You'd have a significant increase in crashes [if the drinking age were lowered,]" said Laura Dawson, president of the MADD Northern Virginia Chapter.
This July marked 23 years since Congress passed the 21 Minimum Legal Drinking Age Law with the help of MADD, and Sens. Frank R. Lautenberg, D-N.J, and Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C. Although states have the right to set their own drinking age, under the current law any state that sets it below 21 forfeits 10 percent of its annual highway appropriations. By 1988, all 50 states had enacted the 21-year-old minimum, with Wyoming being the last to raise the drinking age.