RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Nearly half of all college students say they binge drink, according to research. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines that as downing five or more drinks in a row.

More than 100 university presidents say they consider that statistic a sign that efforts to curtail underage drinking have failed. They say it's time to start over and maybe even lower the drinking age. NPR's Larry Abramson reports.

LARRY ABRAMSON: For over 20 years, the federal government has required that states bar drinking to citizens under 21 at the risk of losing some federal highway funds, yet university presidents from Lewis and Clark in Oregon to the Maine Maritime Academy say underage drinking remains a huge problem.

Dr. JERRY GREINER (President, Arcadia University): We don't feel that this is working very well, the way it's set up right now, and we'd like to find a better way of engaging this process.

ABRAMSON: Jerry Greiner is president of Arcadia University, near Philadelphia. He has signed on to the Amethyst Initiative, an effort to rethink efforts to stop out-of-control drinking by young people. Greiner says he's done what he can to limit access to alcohol at his school, but there's one thing he can't do. He can't talk to students about sensible drinking.

Dr. GREINER: We don't talk with them about the fact that it's okay to drink because it's against the law. So how do you have the conversation?

ABRAMSON: President Greiner says a lower drinking age might give him the chance to do his job, to educate students about a major health problem.

Many schools have tried hard to deal with heavy drinking in recent years, but Ted Fiske, author of a number of college guides, says many schools still deal with the problem by looking the other way when students drink on campus.

Mr. EDWARD FISKE (Writer): And they do this as a way of keeping students from going off-campus to do their drinking, and thus inducing the idea of driving while drunk and so forth.

ABRAMSON: Mothers Against Drunk Driving attacked the idea of lowering the drinking age, saying that parents should think twice before sending their teens to schools that have, quote, "waved the white flag on underage and binge drinking policies."

MADD and other groups were particularly incensed at statements by the organizer of the initiative - John McCardell, former president of Middlebury College - claim that research is ambiguous on whether the drinking age actually lowered the number of traffic deaths.

McCardell says underage drinking laws have actually killed many students who lost their lives because of binge drinking.

Mr. JOHN McCARDELL (Organizer, Amethyst Initiative): And if one looks away from the highways to life on college campuses, for example, one also sees indisputable, peer-reviewed research that shows that more than 1,000 lives are being lost each year by 18-to-24-year-olds to alcohol off the highways.

ABRAMSON: But Harvard Professor Henry Wechsler says there's no question about the research. States that lowered the drinking age in the 1970s had more highway death, and he says...

Professor HENRY WECHSLER (Harvard University): When the age went up again in the '80s, deaths went down by a similar amount. And most deaths of young people are related to traffic accidents.

ABRAMSON: Supporters of the idea like President Jerry Greiner of Arcadia University say they are not specifically calling for lowering the drinking age.

Dr. GREINER: What I'm doing is asking for a further discussion and a further debate about the issues.

ABRAMSON: Including possibly lowering the drinking age.

Dr. GREINER: Possibly.

ABRAMSON: The proposal appears to have little support in Congress. States are free to experiment, if they don't mind losing some highway funds. That idea may not go over well, especially in a tight economy. Larry Abramson, NPR News.

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