Although there have been calls to lower the legal drinking age from 21, a new study led by EVMS researcher Andrew Plunk, PhD, raises the possibility that it could have the unintended effect of boosting the high school dropout rate.

Although there have been calls to lower the legal drinking age from 21, a new study led by EVMS researcher Andrew Plunk, PhD, raises the possibility that it could have the unintended effect of boosting the high school dropout rate. 

The study, funded by The National Institute on Drug Abuse and The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, looked back at high school dropout rates in the 1970s to mid-80s — a time when many U.S. states lowered the age at which young people could legally buy alcohol. 

Dr. Plunk, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, says the study found that when the minimum drinking age was lowered to 18, high school dropout rates rose by about 3 percent. Black and Hispanic students — who were already more vulnerable to dropping out — appeared to be more greatly affected; high school dropout for both groups increased by about 4 percent. The lowered age had a particular impact on young people whose parents had drinking problems; their dropout rate increased by 34 percent. 

Dr. Plunk explains that state drinking ages were lowered in response to a national social movement questioning the age of majority in response to the Vietnam War. Because of this, changes in state-drinking-age policies were likely unrelated to personal factors that put kids at risk of drinking problems or dropping out of high school, thereby creating what he calls a “natural experiment.” 

And why would the legal drinking age matter when it comes to high school dropout rates? 

“The minimum legal drinking age changes how easy it is for a young person to get alcohol,” Dr. Plunk says. “In states where it was lowered to 18, it’s likely that more underage students were able to get alcohol from their legal-age friends who were still in high school.” 

Federal legislation enacted in 1984 returned the legal drinking age to 21 nationwide. However, there is an ongoing debate about lowering it again, largely as a way to combat clandestine binge drinking on college campuses. The argument is that college students who can legally buy alcohol in bars and restaurants will drink more responsibly.

But Dr. Plunk says that debate is missing something: What might the effects be in high schools? 

“I think this study gives us some idea of what could happen if we lower the legal drinking age,” Dr. Plunk says. “It suggests to me that we’d see this same dropout phenomenon again, essentially transferring some of the drinking problems on college campuses today back to the high school level.”

The Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs (www.jsad.com) is published by the Center of Alcohol Studies at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. It is the oldest substance-related journal published in the United States.

Read an article on Time.com about this study.