Underage drinking in college campuses

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There are many things people associate with the college or university experience. Though it varies depending on the individual, most would agree that alcohol has a strong presence on university campuses everywhere, both in the U.S. and abroad. Some even venture to say that underage drinking and alcohol abuse on college campuses is a national health crisis, and the statistics seem to justify that claim. According to a report from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), around 1,825 college students die annually from alcohol-related injuries or accidents, nearly 700,000 are assaulted by another student who has been drinking, and around 100,000 report alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape.

It’s no mystery why college students drink. Living independently from family members — often for the first time — and surrounded by like-minded peers in a college environment, the inconsistent enforcement of laws, social pressures, and newfound freedom combine to push students down the slippery slope of alcoholism, leading to potential negative consequences. As is the prevailing narrative, it’s no wonder that college campuses try so hard to quash underage drinking, rooting it out like a modern-day inquisition against those who imbibe.

The policy of abstention is especially common among schools who have strong drinking cultures, and among those institutions with strong athletic traditions or Greek life. But even at Carnegie Mellon, where we are more renown for our AI research and cutting-edge technology than frat parties or binge drinking (Carnival aside), there are still clear expectations for students on how they should conduct themselves around illicit substances — i.e., they should stay away from them — a policy enforced through Resident Advisors and the Carnegie Mellon Police Department.

The prohibition of alcohol in accordance with state law sounds like a great idea on paper, so long as every single college student is going to hold themselves to the highest standards of integrity and strives to always do right by resisting such temptations, which is a laughable assumption. It has pretty much been ingrained in the teenage conscience that college students drink, so by the time they arrive on campus for orientation, they are prepared to either engage, or have knowledge that others will be engaging, in underage drinking. The age of 18, for all intents and purposes, is regarded as the age to start drinking, with its invocations of adulthood continuing to reflect attitudes that stem from the 1960s, when student activists first campaigned to have the drinking age reduced from 21.

Despite best efforts of enforcing restrictions, the fact that underage drinking continues to be a problem shows that it is not a very effective approach, and policies like alcohol amnesty are an open acknowledgement by campuses that they cannot always stop students from drinking. Besides, if a college bans drinking in the dorms and on campus, students will just go off campus and seek their booze elsewhere in more dangerous and unsupervised places where the threat of injury is tangibly higher.

Instead of trying to stop students from drinking, colleges should further efforts to educate students to stay safe and protected when engaging with such substances, instead of cracking down on their use, something that we see in initiatives like AlcoholEdu. Such programs and policies would not only ensure that students drink in moderation, but it would also serve to remove the thrill and allure surrounding underage drinking, transforming it from a forbidden taboo to a normalized occurrence that people are aware of and undertake with moderation.

Many will argue that such leniency on campus is a dangerous thing, as it would help establish unhealthy habits that would have adverse effects later on. While it’s true that some may become habitual drinkers, experimenting with alcohol in a sheltered environment and learning how to maturely handle such situations early on is far better than encountering alcohol later on in life, when impulsive choices could lead to disastrous outcomes that incur the full weight of the law. In that sense, ensuring that students have instructive experiences that instill control within them can have a positive impact down the road.

Note, however, that I am not encouraging underage drinking outside of the college context, as alcohol abuse is a serious offense that should not be taken lightly. However, the four years that we spend in university cannot be said to be reflective of the real world in its nuance or complexity. For many, college is a time of discovery, growth, and bad decisions, a limbo between the teen years and full adulthood that should be treated as such.