Getting Drunk Rationally–College Life Edition

Let’s just put this up front: Excessive consumption of alcohol and alcohol addiction are bad. It’s even more bad when those involved are underage college students (or even younger). Okay? Okay.

Now, we can debate what the threshold of “underage” is (currently, 21 years in the United States) versus what it could be (18 in most of the rest of the world). If we adopted the global standard, there would be very few US college students who are underage. Problem solved, right? I doubt college administrators would agree (but maybe they should…see below).

While drinking is a hallmark of the US college experience, it is a problem–whether students are underage or not. According to a recent survey of students here at the University of Missouri (MU), 86% drink alcohol regularly; 38% of underage drinkers drink to get drunk, and 68% of Greek students binge drink (ban the Greeks! no, not those Greeks). Binge drinking is defined as 5+ drinks in two hours for men, 4+ for women. Despite these numbers, fewer than 1% of students were arrested for a DUI and almost no students ran afoul of campus administration. But the numbers reflect a lot of irresponsible and illegal drinking, so the University has launched an effort to reduce the incidence of underage drinking and high-risk drinking.

One of the proposals, which has been embraced by other universities, is to increase the number of Friday morning classes. A 2007 study showed MU students with no Friday morning classes drank twice as much on Thursdays as those who had classes. Now, this fact doesn’t take into account the self-selection by students to take Friday morning courses–presumably, those who are less worried about drinking are more likely to choose the Friday courses. But if we take it at face value (as the administration would have us do), it means students are drinking responsibly when they have incentive to do so. Students rationally respond to the expected consequences of getting hammered on Thursday morning and having to be up early (and hung over) for classes on Friday.

I believe the proposal for Friday classes, while it might have some effect, is actually a pretty bad idea. And it’s not because I prefer to teach Tuesday/Thursdays so that I have longer weekends (though it is nice to have the flexibility for traveling and not missing class). I prefer the 75-minute TTh classes to 50-minute MWF classes, and the University frowns upon 75-min classes on MWorF for room scheduling purposes. The shorter, more frequent classes mean more time wasted on getting settled, reviewing from the previous class, winding down, etc., since it happens 50% more often.

Moreover, adding Friday classes does nothing to address the problem of postponed consumption until Friday and Saturday nights.

So let’s go back to the basic lesson of the Friday morning case: college students drink rationally, taking account of the expected costs of their drinking. So rather than forcing faculty to schedule more classes on Friday mornings–or forcing students to take Friday morning classes–how about addressing the real problem: poor enforcement and weak punishments for existing alcohol laws. Since roughly 75% of students are underage and 83% of students are drinking regularly, enforcement is obviously an issue. If students 1) were more likely to get caught, and 2) suffered more severe consequences of getting caught, it is only reasonable to expect students to reduce their consumption.

Binge drinking itself is a rational response to the consequences of getting caught drinking illegally.

Of course, it’s also possible–even likely–that part of the problem is the drinking age itself. Binge drinking is a rational response to the consequences of getting caught drinking illegally. The longer a college student stays in a bar, the more likely he or she is to get caught, which encourages faster (binge) drinking. Likewise, students are more likely to slam down several beers in private before going out, since they can’t drink (easily, legally, and responsibly) while they are out in public. In short, arbitrary age limits on alcohol consumption incentivize the very kinds of consumption we are concerned about.

This is borne out internationally. A report by the U.S. Department of Justice compares binge drinking rates among youth in the US and Europe in attempt to provide evidence that lowering the legal age in the US would not help binge drinking rates. In fact, it provides no such evidence (they compare binge drinking rates among 15-16 year olds, not 18-21 year olds). What it does show is that youth who are closer to the legal drinking age in their country (i.e., more likely to be able to fool sellers and avoid getting caught) binge drink more often. And if we’re going to incentivize more binge drinking at some age point, would it be better to have it among 15-16 year olds who also have to avoid detection at home, or among college students who have little direct supervision?

So just to recap: abusing alcohol is a bad thing. There are negative health consequences for the individual and negative externalities for society associated with high-risk drinking. But the evidence is also clear: there is a rationality behind college-age drinkers’ behavior. If we’re going to offer potential remedies based on that rational response, let’s choose policies that better target those incentives than just making them take classes on Friday mornings.

And for heaven’s sake, let’s not even start with myriad additional regulations that limit the ability of responsible adults to legally and responsibly enjoy adult beverages and the ability of business owners to legally compete for that business. But that’s another blog post.

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