On the face of it, the notion seems counterintuitive, but to the presidents of some of the nation's most prestigious colleges, it makes a lot of sense: Lowering the legal drinking age might get students to drink less.
But any chance for the academic leaders to begin a public discussion of their theory -- that allowing people as young as 18 to drink legally might promote moderation -- has been lost in a wave of criticism from health experts, transportation officials, government leaders and opponents of drunken driving.
Safety advocates say the legal drinking age of 21 saves about 900 lives every year. And Laura Dean-Mooney, president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said: People look to college presidents "for their leadership role on their campuses. It just seems like they didn't do enough homework to look at the science on this."
Other critics said the university leaders are trying to avoid being held liable for enforcing the drinking age and are kicking the problem to others. "I'm an alumnus of Dickinson College and can't believe they signed on to this initiative," said Jonathan Adkins, a spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association. "They are really just punting on the issue and leaving the high school principals to deal with it. Very disappointing."
As parents ship their children off to college this month, university officials are bracing for a round of alcohol-fueled parties and binge drinking. They say they have tried banning keggers and have promoted alcohol counseling, but problems persist. It's time for a new approach, they say.
In addition to the Dickinson president, academic leaders involved in the effort include those of Duke University and Dartmouth College as well as several Washington area schools, such as the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins University. Their effort, the Amethyst Initiative, proposes to reopen a national discussion that hasn't been seriously debated in three decades.
Amid the backlash this week, the 115 university leaders in the group said their proposal is being distorted. They said that they are not necessarily advocating that the age be lowered but that the issue needs to be part of the debate because alcohol abuse at colleges has gotten so bad.
"We want to encourage an honest and constructive dialogue among educators, lawmakers, parents and students," Duke President Richard H. Brodhead said. "If what we are doing now doesn't work, then we have an obligation to ourselves, and to society, to explore what might."
Full-time traditional-age college students drink more than people the same age who aren't in college, according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, which estimates that 1,700 18-to-24-year-old students die every year from alcohol-related injuries.
"It's a very serious problem on college campuses, and it just seems to get worse and worse," said William Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland.
Although polling has shown that the public strongly opposes lowering the drinking age, there has been some consideration of it this year, "way more so than in the past," said Matthew Gever, a policy associate with the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Minnesota, Kentucky, South Carolina, Wisconsin and Vermont have considered bills. In Minnesota, a measure that would have let anyone 18 and older drink in bars and restaurants failed. In Vermont, legislators set up a committee to study the topic. The bills in Kentucky, South Carolina and Wisconsin, also unsuccessful, were aimed at changing the rules for members of the military.
Gever said the argument for the military has been, "If they're over there in Iraq and have been shot at, they may as well be able to have a beer when they get back home."
It was during the Vietnam War that the push to make alcohol legal for 18-year-olds most recently took hold. But in 1984, Congress mandated a 10 percent penalty on highway appropriations for any state with a drinking age below 21.
And that's why the chances of changing the drinking age are "very, very, very small," Gever said. "The political popularity of federal highway money far outweighs the popularity of letting 18-year-olds drink."
"In college, you're free for the first time ever. There are no rules," said Walter Ray-Dulany, a fifth-year doctoral student at the University of Maryland in College Park. "In high school, there are rules. And maybe it's better to start drinking when there are rules."
Amy Austin, 18, a U-Md. sophomore, said that girls often get sick from drinking too much during sorority rush parties and other gatherings but that fellow students are reluctant to get them help because the girls are underage.
Lowering the drinking age, she said, "would do a lot to make college campuses safer."
It's no secret that alcohol permeates college life. Will Porter, a 21-year-old economics major at U-Md., said that one of the favorite games in his fraternity is for 10 guys to pass around a handle of bourbon until it's gone. About a month ago, he said, he drank seven shots of whiskey and six glasses of Jack Daniels and Coca-Cola at a bar near campus. He doesn't remember much else.
Now, he said, he's going through court-ordered alcohol treatment. His second Alcoholics Anonymous meeting is Sunday.
"A lot of people get a real thrill out of the fact it's illegal -- that causes them to drink more," he said. But he said he's not sure that changing the drinking age would matter.
"I don't think it'd change the partying or drinking," he said. "I just think it would change the number of fake IDs people use."