EVMS researcher ties legal drinking age of 18 to high school dropout rate

Andrew Plunk, PhD
Andrew Plunk, PhD

A new study led by EVMS researcher Andrew Plunk, PhD, raises the possibility that a younger drinking age could have the unintended effect of boosting the high school dropout rate.

The report, published in the September issue of 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 to 18.

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 34 percent.

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.”