A predictable cry of criticism arose this week when 100 college presidents -- Jack Ohle of Gustavus Adolphus in St. Peter among them -- put their names on a statement that said, "It's time to rethink the drinking age."
Critics claimed they heard in those words too much tolerance of drinking by late teens. We heard instead a plea for help. These respected college presidents are trying to end a recurring nightmare on too many campuses -- student deaths caused by excessive alcohol consumption.
Minnesota witnessed a spate of such preventable tragedies in the past year. They've occurred despite "dry campus" rules, enforcement crackdowns and stepped-up education about the risks associated with binge drinking. Those remedies may be reducing the overall drinking rate on campuses, but they aren't stopping dangerous bingeing.
National studies have found that binge drinking is more prevalent in states where adult alcohol abuse levels are also high. And they've found a particular problem, on both counts, in the Upper Midwest. The college presidents are raising an important question: Might it be that lessons about responsible legal alcohol use are best learned at home -- and that parents and teens would both benefit from a drinking age law that invites them to learn together?
There is a natural appeal to the argument that because the law doesn't prevent underage drinking, there must be some other, better remedy for the problem. It's pretty clear, though, that the law does prevent some underage drinking -- and that when the legal barrier is gone, grim consequences result. That fact must be considered in the debate.
Alcohol abuse is not particularly kind to mature brains and bodies, but it is even harder on the young. Heavy drinking at an early age can affect brain development and initiate a lifelong predisposition to alcoholism. And when the drinking age was briefly lowered in the 1970s, the scourge of young drunks on the roads prompted a federal drive to bring it back to 21 in all states.
Once that change was accomplished -- thanks to the threatened loss of federal funds -- National Highway Transportation Safety Administration figures showed a marked decrease in alcohol-related deaths among drivers under age 21.
None of this would be news to the college presidents, who have every right to feel they've been saddled with the results of a system that fails to give young people a proper sense of caution and responsibility about drugs and alcohol. Administrators at most colleges are ill-equipped to deal with a problem that may have been not truly addressed but merely postponed for the first 18 years of a student's life.
Whatever the answer to the problem, it begins in the home -- and by that, we don't mean the dorm.