The legal age for alcohol use affects school drop-out rates
A new study shows that in the run-up to the landmark decision in 1984 establishing the National Minimum Drinking Age Act in the USA, states with lower minimum alcohol use ages saw higher high school dropout rates.
Andrew Plunk, assistant professor of pediatrics at Eastern Virginia Medical School, lead author of a study:
We saw a 3% increase in dropout rates in the whole sample.
In already at-risk groups [of dropping out of high school] like blacks and Hispanics, we saw a 4% increase.
These are people who are 15, 16, 17, people who we still consider children. Protecting them is a very important thing.”
The study is published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs and financed by grants from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).
Plunk and his colleagues looked at data from the 1970s and 1980s to see if there were differences in dropout rates. They used several sources:
- The Integrated Public Use Microdata Series,
- The National Longitudinal Alcohol Epidemiological Survey, and
- The National Epidemiological Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions.
The researchers restricted the data to those born between 1960 and 1969, meaning the kids were of high school age during the period of greatest change in minimum legal age for alcohol use, which took place between 1978 and 1987. They also controlled for socioeconomic factors, like poverty, which might have affected the results.
When Plunk and his team went back through high school graduation records, they found that 17-year-olds were affected by their 18-year-old peers.
The explanation for the phenomenon: underage alcohol use is not anything new and there are definitely ways for minors to get access to alcohol, there’s something significant about 17 that makes it stick out: It’s the age when students are in their pivotal junior/senior year and are about to graduate. In a situation where 18 was the legal age for alcohol use, being legal was just within grasp but not quite.
What the results mean
If the correlation observed in the paper were to happen today with 3.3 million students expected to graduate from high school this year, school dropouts would amount to 99,000.
Minorities are already more likely to face obstacles to crossing the graduation stage, such as poverty and dysfunction; lowering the legal age for alcohol use seems to magnify that effect.
There are a number of external environmental factors that might affect the connection between dropout rates and lowering the legal age for alcohol use. But the research shows that the legal age for alcohol use is an important tool to protect minors.
For further reading
Journal of Studies on Alcohol (2002)
National Advisory Council on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
Task Force on College Drinking
Special Editors: Mark S. Goldman, Ph.D., Gayle M. Boyd, Ph.D., Vivian Faden, Ph.D.