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Addressing the Minimum Legal Drinking Age (MLDA)
in College Communities

Enforcement of age-21 laws has multiple ramifications in college settings, where underage students, often a majority on campus, co-mingle with students of legal age. College administrators face serious questions about how and whether to enforce the minimum legal drinking age (MLDA). They must balance safety, liability, and law-enforcement responsibilities with universities’ historic role as havens of personal freedom, experimentation, and student self-expression and individual responsibility. Administrators’ responses become all the more difficult because most students begin drinking well before they arrive on campus.

Not surprisingly, many administrators focus more on binge or high-risk drinking by their students and the host of problems it creates. The age of the drinker often becomes a secondary concern as campus alcohol policies also emphasize “harm reduction” over prevention. Enforcement of the MLDA has historically focused heavily on individual education and punishment of violators. Colleges are now learning that effective action on the MLDA requires a broader prevention approach that affects the conditions under which alcohol is made available, promoted and integrated into college life. Conversely, universities have found that the MLDA provides a strong legal rationale to develop effective prevention policies that can reduce high-risk as well as underage drinking.


Following the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, many states set the MLDA at 21 (and in some cases 18 for the purchase of beer). During the 1960s and 1970s, many states lowered the MLDA in response to growing political liberalism and Vietnam war-era arguments that the drinking age should parallel the draft age of 18. Subsequently:

  • In 1982, prompted by evidence linking younger drinking ages with increased alcohol-related highway deaths among youths, President Ronald Reagan appointed a Presidential Commission on Drunk Driving. Its top recommendation was the passage of federal legislation to require all states to raise the MLDA to 21.
  • In 1984, 23 states had minimum alcohol purchasing ages of 21 years old, and on July 17th of that year, President Ronald Reagan signed legislation to withhold federal highway funds from the remaining 27 states if they did not follow suit.
  • The age-21 MLDA was universally adopted nationwide as of July 1, 1998, when Wyoming became the last state to raise its drinking age to 21.


  • Fewer college students reported drinking in the past month in 2000 (67.4%) than in 1980 (82%), when younger drinking ages were the norm. [1]
  • Annual alcohol use by high school seniors dropped from 87% in 1983 (before passage of the national MLDA law) to 73.2% in 2000. [2]
  • Age-21 MLDA laws have reduced traffic fatalities involving drivers 18 to 20 years old by an estimated 13 percent and saved an estimated 20,042 lives since 1975.[3]
  • The age-21 MLDA has also led to decreases in the number of teen DWI arrests, youth suicides, marijuana use, crime, and alcohol consumption by youth.[4, 5]


  • Although young people drink less in response to age-21 MLDA, youth alcohol use is still widespread. Nearly 10 million current drinkers in the United States are between the ages of 12 and 20. [6]
  • By the time they are high school seniors, more than 80% of youths have used alcohol and more than 62% have been drunk.[7]
  • Two out of three underage college students (63%) report drinking in the past month. [8]
  • Beyond harm to drinkers themselves, colleges have good reason to be concerned about the damaging effect alcohol has on campus safety and the quality of student and academic life in general. A 1994 survey found that two-thirds of all property damage, 64% of violent behavior, 42% of physical injury, 37% of emotional difficulty, 38% of poor academic performance, and 28% of all drop outs could be attributed to alcohol. [9]

By the time they enter college, many young people have been drinking (illegally) for years. More than half (59%) of college undergraduates are underage [10], while their older peers can legally buy or be served alcohol. In addition:

  • Full-time college students on average drink more heavily than their non-college peers [11], and are heavily targeted by alcohol advertising and local bar promotions as a prized market for the alcoholic-beverage industry.
  • Heavy drinking norms are deeply ingrained in key segments of the college culture (fraternities and sororities, athletes, alumni events), and in student perceptions of the college social scene.
  • Many campuses are surrounded by a concentration of bars and clubs that cater to college students.
  • Alcohol producers heavily target the college demographic through magazine, billboard, internet, and television advertising, as well as spring break promotions, on-site marketing, contests, concerts, and sporting events.
  • The MLDA is weakly and unevenly enforced, and the availability and use of high-quality fake IDs is widespread.

Congress’ 1989 passage of amendments to the Drug-Free Schools and Campuses Act (codified as Part 86 of EDGAR [34 CFR Part 86]) has been a driving force behind campus prevention activity in the past decade. As a condition of receiving federal funding, this law requires colleges and universities to establish and enforce clear standards of conduct prohibiting the unlawful possession, use, or distribution of alcohol and illicit drugs by students and employees. The regulations also require schools to prepare a written review of their program every two years to: 1) determine its effectiveness and implement any needed changes and 2) ensure that the school's sanctions are being consistently enforced.

College administrators realize that totally eliminating underage drinking may be an unrealistic and unattainable goal. However, they are increasingly pursuing a range of policies and practices aimed at discouraging underage drinking and reducing its appeal, including:

  • Offering substance-free housing and/or age-segregated housing;
  • Restricting or prohibiting alcohol at social activities on campus or at activities sponsored by fraternities and other student organizations;
  • Aggressively enforcing minimum drinking age laws in residence halls and throughout campus;
  • Training Resident Assistants in how to respond to alcohol violations, and offering performance incentives for consistently enforcing policies;
  • Prohibiting of alcohol advertising (or advertising of discounted drinks) in student newspapers and university publications, and outlawing alcohol advertising and promotions on campus.
  • Eliminating alcohol advertising at college sports events and sponsorship of college sports programs;
  • Providing alcohol-free late night social options, coffee houses or other alcohol-free gathering places on campus;
  • Revising school promotional materials and admissions criteria to change expectations of freshmen before they arrive on campus;
  • Providing information to parents and students of alcohol policies and penalties for violations during orientation programs;
  • Establishing Campus-Community partnerships focused on stemming the illegal flow of alcohol to underage students through bars, liquor stores, and off-campus parties, and;
  • Passing “21-to-Enter” ordinances setting an age restriction on entry to bars and clubs.

Despite the MLDA’s impressive public health successes, opponents level several common arguments against it. These arguments often spring from alcoholic-beverage industry sources or their paid industry-funded representatives, including substance abuse researchers. Common arguments that attack MLDA laws and policies (and responses to them) include:

The “Forbidden Fruit” Argument:

Some have argued that lowering the drinking age will reduce the allure of alcohol as a "forbidden fruit" for minors. In fact, research suggests that lowering the drinking age will make alcohol more available to an even younger population, replacing "forbidden fruit" with "low-hanging fruit." The practices and behaviors of 18 year-olds are particularly influential on 15 to 17 year-olds [12]. If 18 year-olds get the OK to drink, they will be modeling drinking for younger teens. Legal access to alcohol for 18 year-olds will provide more opportunities for younger teens to obtain it illegally from older peers, making enforcement that much more difficult among high school students. For this reason, parents and schools strongly supported the age-21 MLDA.

Despite the call by some university administrators to lower the drinking age (thus relieving them of enforcement responsibilities), there is no evidence that there were fewer campus alcohol problems when lower drinking ages were in effect. In fact, age-21 has resulted in decreases, not increases, in youth drinking, an outcome inconsistent with an increased allure of alcohol. In 1983, one year before the National Minimum Purchase Age Act was passed, 88% of high school seniors reported any alcohol use in the past year and 41% reported binge drinking. By 2000, alcohol use by seniors had dropped to 73% and the percentage of binge drinkers had fallen to 30%.[13]

The “Teach Responsible Drinking” Argument:

Critics have argued that lowering the drinking age will encourage young people to be responsible consumers. They'll get an idea of their tolerance and learn to drink under supervision at bars (or on campus, if in college), rather than at uncontrolled private parties away from school. However, there is no evidence to indicate that kids will learn to drink responsibly simply because they are able to consume alcohol legally at a younger age. Countries with lower drinking ages suffer from alcohol-related problems similar to those in the U.S. [14] It was recently reported that New Zealand is considering raising its drinking age to 21 again after rates of teen binge drinking and drunken fighting increased when that country lowered its drinking age to 18 in 1999.

Research documents some promising results for one-on-one interventions with individual problem drinkers to help them moderate their consumption.[15] However, no education program has successfully taught entire populations of youth to drink responsibly. Responsible consumption comes with maturity, and maturity largely comes as certain protective mechanisms, such as marriage and first job, begin to take hold. Providing supervision does not necessarily lead to responsibility. For example, some campuses have student pubs that practice responsible beverage service and cater also to faculty who ostensibly model responsible drinking. No evidence that the presence of such facilities reduces high-risk student drinking in other venues on and around campus.

Many bars, on the other hand, aggressively promote irresponsible drinking by deeply discounting drinks and by heavily promoting specials, such as happy hours, two-for-ones, all-you-can-drink nights, and bar crawls.

Age of Initiation Argument:

Another common argument holds that at age 18, kids can vote, join the military, sign contracts, and even smoke. Why shouldn't they be able to drink? Ages of initiation indeed vary -- one may vote at 18, drink at 21, rent a car at 25, and run for president at 35. These ages may appear arbitrary, but they take into account the requirements, risks, and benefits of each act.

When age-21 was challenged in Louisiana's State Supreme Court, the Court upheld the law, ruling that "...statutes establishing the minimum drinking age at a higher level than the age of majority are not arbitrary because they substantially further the appropriate governmental purpose of improving highway safety, and thus are constitutional." [16]

Age-21 laws help keep young people healthy by postponing the onset of alcohol use. Deferred drinking reduces the risks of:

  • developing alcohol dependence or abuse later in life. [17]
  • harming the developing brain, a developmental process that continues into the early 20's. [18]
  • engaging in current and adult drug use. [19, 20]
  • suffering alcohol-related problems, such as trouble at work, with friends, family, and police.[21]
Defeatist Argument: “Minors still drink, so age-21 laws clearly don't work.”

Age-21 laws work. Young people drink less in response. The laws have saved an estimated 20,043 lives since states began implementing them in 1975, and they've decreased the number of alcohol-related youth fatalities among drivers by 63% since 1982.[22,23]

Stricter enforcement of age-21 laws against commercial sellers would make those laws even more effective at reducing youth access to alcohol. The ease with which young people acquire alcohol -- nearly three-quarters of 8th graders (71%) say that it is "fairly easy" or "very easy" to get -- indicates that more must be done. [24] Current laws against sales to minors need stiff penalties to deter violations. Better education and prevention-oriented laws are needed to reduce the commercial pressures on kids to drink.

Finally, the most compelling need for age 21 is the clear evidence that lowering the drinking age in the past has sacrificed public health and safety:

  • State motor vehicle fatality data from the 48 continental states found that lowering the drinking age for beer from 21 to 18 resulted in an 11% increase in fatalities among that age group. [25]
  • In Arizona, lowering the drinking age increased the incidence of fatal accidents by more than 25% and traffic fatalities by more than 35%.[26]
  • Lowering the drinking age in Massachusetts caused an increase in total fatal crashes, alcohol-related fatal crashes, and alcohol-related property damage crashes among 18 to 20 year-old drivers. [27]
  • From 1979 to 1984, the suicide rate was 9.7% greater among young people who could legally drink alcohol than among their peers who could not. [28]

Despite occasional challenges and the certainty that it is neither universally enforced or observed, the MLDA continues to enjoy strong public support among both adults and teens. An Associated Press poll conducted in June, 2001 found that 68% of teens and adults supported keeping the drinking age at 21, while 16% of teens and 15% of adults supported raising it. [29]


[1] National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2001). Monitoring the Future: National Survey Results on Drug Use, 1975-2000. Volume II: College Students & Adults, Ages 19-40. NIH Publication No. 01-4925. Bethesda, MD: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
[2] National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2001). Monitoring the Future: National Survey Results on Drug Use, 1975-2000. Volume I: Secondary School Students. NIH Publication No. 01-4924. Bethesda, MD: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
[3] National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. (2001). Traffic Safety Facts 2000: Young Drivers. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Transportation.
[4] NHTSA, “1995 Youth Fatal Crash and Alcohol Facts,” February 1997.
[5] Yu, J., Varone, R., & Robinson, S. (1996). Minimum Legal Purchase Age and Traffic Safety: Facts and Practices. Albany, NY: New York State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services.
[6] Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2001). Summary of Findings From the 2000 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse. DHHS Publication No. (SMA) 01-3549. Rockville, MD: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
[7] National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2001). Monitoring the Future: National Survey Results on Drug Use, 1975-2000. Volume I: Secondary School Students, ibid.
[8] Wechsler, H., Kuo, M.., Lee H., & Dowdall, G.W. (2000). Environmental correlates of underage drinking alcohol use and related problems of college students. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 19(1):24-29.
[9] Anderson, D. (1994). Breaking the tradition on college campuses: Reducing drug and alcohol misuse. Fairfax, VA: George Mason University, Center for Health Promotion.
[10] Core Institute. 2000 Statistics on Alcohol and Other Drug Use on American Campuses. [WWW document]. URL http://www.siu.edu/departments/coreinst/public_html/recent.html (site visited November 11, 2001).
11] Yu, J., Varone, R., & Robinson, S. (1996), ibid.
[12] Bonnie, RJ, "Discouraging Unhealthy Personal Choices through Government Regulation: Some Thoughts About the Minimum Drinking Age," In Minimum-Drinking-Age Laws, Wechsler, H (Ed.), Lexington, MA: DC Heath Co., p39-58, 1980.)
[13] National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2001). Monitoring the Future: National Survey Results on Drug Use, 1975-2000. Volume I: Secondary School Students, ibid.
[14] Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation. (2001). Comparison of Drinking Rates and Problems: European Countries and the United States. Prepared in support of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention's Enforcing the Underage Drinking Laws Program. Calverton, MD.
[15] Marlatt, G.A.; Baer, J.S.; & Larimer, M., “Preventing alcohol abuse in college students: A harm-reduction approach,” In: Boyd, G.M.; Howard, J.; & Zucker, R.A., eds. Alcohol Problems Among Adolescents: Current Directions in Prevention Research. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1995. pp. 147-172
[16] Manuel v State of Louisiana, 1996.
[17] Grant, B. F., & Dawson, D. A. (1997). Age at onset of alcohol use and its association with DSM-IV alcohol abuse and dependence: Results from the national longitudinal alcohol epidemiologic survey. Journal of Substance Abuse, 9:103-110.
[18] Little, PJ, et al., "Differential Effects of Ethanol in Adolescent and Adult Rats," Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 20(8):1346-1351, November 1996.
Mills, CJ and HL Noyes, "Patterns and Correlates of Initial and Subsequent Drug Use Among Adolescents," Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 52(2):231-243, 1984.
20] [National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, "Cigarettes, Alcohol, Marijuana: Gateways to Illicit Drug Use," p31, October 1994.
[21] Barnes, GM, et al., "Alcohol Misuse Among College Students and Other Young Adults: Findings From a General Population Study of New York State," The International Journal of the Addictions, 27(8):917-934, 1992.
[22] National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. (2001), ibid.
[23] National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, "1995 Youth Fatal Crash and Alcohol Facts," February 1997.
[24] National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2001). Monitoring the Future: National Survey Results on Drug Use, 1975-2000. Volume I: Secondary School Students, ibid.
[25] Cook, PJ and G Tauchen, "The Effects of Minimum Drinking Age Legislation on Youthful Auto Fatalities, 1970 - 1977." Journal of Legal Studies, 15(4):159-162, 1984.
[26] Arizona Department of Public Safety, "An Impact Assessment of Arizona's Lowered Legal Drinking Age and a Review of Previous Research," Statistical Center, 1981.
[27] Cucchiaro, S, et al., "The Effects of the 18-year old Drinking Age on Auto Accidents," Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Operations Research Center, 1974.
[28] Jones, NE, et al., "The Effect of Legal Drinking Age on Fatal Injuries of Adolescents and Young Adults," American Journal of Public Health, 82(1):112-115, 1992.
[29] Associated Press Poll conducted by ICR of Media, Pa. (USA Today, 8/13/2001)