Self-Perceptions of Adulthood, Heavy Drinking, and Opposition to the Age 21 Drinking Law

When can a young person be said to have reached adulthood? The quick answer is age 18. That’s the “age of majority” in most countries, when a person is legally an adult and can assume control of and legal responsibility for their personal affairs. That’s true in most US states, but not all it turns out. In Alabama, Delaware, and Nebraska, the designated age is 19, and in Mississippi it’s 21. That said, the minimum legal drinking age in the United States is 21, regardless of variation in the age of adulthood across states.

Of course, becoming a fully functioning adult involves far more than reaching a milestone birthday—rather, it’s a process that unfolds over many years. For Americans, achieving full adulthood involves several key developmental steps: completing one’s education, making independent decisions, living on one’s own and managing a household, securing and maintaining employment, and being financially independent. There are also socio-emotional aspects to becoming a fully functioning adult: establishing a relationship with parents as an equal adult, developing attachments outside one’s immediate family, making lifetime commitments to others, managing one’s emotional life, accepting responsibility for one’s own actions, and so on.

In short, “adulthood” is a complex, multifaceted concept, with an overlay of seemingly contradictory federal and state laws. For that reason it’s not surprising that entering first-year college students, many of whom are living away from home for the first time, have different thoughts about whether they have reached adulthood.

With the increase in drinking seen upon students’ arrival to campus, my colleagues and I were interested to learn whether these differing self-perceptions would be related to how much alcohol entering first-year students drink. As shown in the Insight Report, “Seeing Oneself as an Adult: The Impact on Drinking in the Freshman Year,” the lower a student’s self-rating for perceived adulthood, the greater the number of heavy drinking episodes that student reported having during the past two weeks. This finding has several implications for prevention practice, which the report outlines.

There’s another reason this finding intrigues me. One of the main arguments made in favor of lowering the minimum legal drinking age to 18 is that people this age are adults and should be treated as such. As described in the Insight Report, we know that not seeing oneself as fully adult predicts being a heavier drinker. This raises an interesting question: Is being a heavier drinker predictive of opposition to the age 21 minimum legal drinking age?

When AlcoholEdu for CollegeTM was administered in 2008, we asked a sample of 6,548 entering college students whether they supported or opposed the age 21 minimum legal drinking age. While 25.1% supported the current law and 30.3% had a neutral opinion, 44.6% expressed their opposition.

Now consider how the students’ opinions varied according to their drinking status during the two-week period before the AlcoholEdu survey. Predictably, those who consumed alcohol during the previous two weeks were more likely to oppose the age 21 minimum. Problem drinkers—male students who reported having had 10 or more drinks on at least one occasion during the previous two weeks, and female students who reported having 8 or more drinks—were especially opposed.

drinking-status-by-studentIn summary, the entering first-year students who do not perceive themselves as fully adult drink more heavily than those who do. In turn, the students who drink most heavily are more likely to oppose the age 21 law. In effect, it’s as if many of these 18-year-old students are saying, “No, I haven’t fully reached adulthood and so I drink a lot, but you need to let me drink legally because I’m adult.” As a proponent of the age 21 law, I appreciate the irony.

These findings raise an important issue for campus administrators and campus-based prevention experts: How do we get all college students to understand that, upon entering college, they have crossed a threshold into adulthood, with all of the opportunities and responsibilities that entails? As they approach graduation and their launch into the “real world,” most juniors and seniors figure this out. Stated differently, then, how do we get entering first-year students to think like upperclass students? If we can get these students to see themselves as adults, then maybe we’ll all reap the rewards of more new students acting like adults.