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Can Drinking Age Affect Dropout Rates?

Should the United States lower its drinking age from 21 to 18? Our nation’s legal drinking age is one of the highest in the world and has remained that way since the National Minimum Drinking Age Act was passed in 1984.

Those in favor of lowering it argue that, if Americans can vote and serve in the military at the tender age of 18, they should also be able to order a drink. Some also argue that prohibiting teenage alcohol abuse only creates a greater desire to drink excessively and contributes to illegal underage drinking on college campuses.

Despite the arguments, our nation’s legal drinking age may have a secret benefit that people don’t yet realize: keeping young people in school.

The Dropout Connection

Thanks to the surprising data contained within a recently published study we now know that, in the lead-up to the 1984 National Minimum Drinking Age Act, states that had a lower legal drinking age also had higher high school dropout rates. And it turns out this correlation was anything but an insignificant coincidence.

Drug abused college dropout teenagers sitting on a parkThis latest piece of research, published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, also supports past research that indicates a lower drinking age contributes to lower academic performance, increased drunk driving accidents and higher rates of substance abuse.

Researchers examined data gathered from people who were of high school age when the minimum legal drinking age changed dramatically, specifically between 1978 and 1987. Looking through high school graduation records, they found that 17-year-olds during that time were significantly affected by their 18-year-old peers. This is a pivotal age, said researchers, since the teens were about to graduate and finally be “of legal age.”

“We saw a 3 percent increase in dropout rates in the whole sample,” said study lead Andrew Plunk, assistant professor of pediatrics at Eastern Virginia Medical School. “In already at-risk groups [of dropping out of high school] like blacks and Hispanics, we saw a 4 percent increase.”

A 3-4 percent increase in high school dropouts, if it were to occur today, would mean 99,000 dropouts. Plunk adds that lowering the drinking age could especially impact the dropout rate among minority students, who already face greater socioeconomic obstacles to graduating.

There’s Much More to Consider

Plunk acknowledges that there are other external environmental factors that may have contributed to the lower dropout rate at the time. However, he believes lowering the drinking age, today, could have an impact on the behavior of young people at a crucial age.

“These are people who are 15, 16, 17 – people who we still consider children,” he said. “Protecting them is a very important thing.”