Statistics show that students behave more like adults now

By Jonathan Wroble

Chronologically, the college student has stayed the same age for decades. But as of late, studies suggest that the typical university enrollee is growing up faster than ever before.

“Young people seem to know more about politics than they know about popular culture,” said Kent E. Portney, professor at Tufts University in Massachusetts, in a statement. “This … stands in stark contrast to the image of young people as uninterested in and ignorant about politics and government.”

Portney based his words on a Tufts University study that surveyed 18- to-24-year-olds about political and popular issues. Half of the respondents were college students and half were not.

According to the surveys, 50 percent of college students can name their respective congressperson, and almost two-thirds can name one of their two U.S. senators. Less than 15 percent, meanwhile, correctly identified Taylor Hicks as the latest winner of “American Idol.”

Similar statistics from other sources confirm this new, more mature view of American adolescents. According to the U.S. Department of Education, for example, student crimes dropped from 3.4 million in 1992 to 1.4 million in 2004. In the same period, the national population of teenagers grew by more than 5 million.

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Considering numbers like these, some academics are ready to act. In March 2007, Harvard Ph.D. Robert Epstein released a book titled “The Case Against Adolescence: Rediscovering the Adult in Every Teen.” In it, he said that society doesn’t allow children to “make basic decisions about their health, education or religion” – but this is one of his less controversial arguments.

“If they can pass an appropriate test of maturity,” Epstein writes, “young people of any age should have access to pornographic materials commensurate with adult access.”

One former professor at Middlebury College in Vermont is fighting a similar battle on a different front. President emeritus John M. McCardell Jr. is working against the drinking age of 21.

“There is a lot of evidence … to suggest that the legal age of 21 is not working,” he said. “I think the drinking age has worsened the problem of drinking abuse.”

The legal age is a result of Congress’ 1984 National Minimum Drinking Age Act, which withholds 10 percent of federal highway funds from any state with a drinking age under 21. In Vermont, that would translate into a loss of $17.5 million per year — a number that would be much bigger in a more populous state like Illinois, McCardell said.

He explained that this law “imposes an impossible dilemma for universities and parents,” who are disenfranchised due to their inability to constantly supervise college students. In turn, many of those students have resorted to unhealthy drinking habits.

“You can call it binge drinking or alcohol abuse, (but) the name matters less than that it’s going on in the closet,” McCardell said. “Social life is far more healthy, natural and normal if it’s out in the open.”

To solve this problem, McCardell proposes drinking licenses for 18- to-20-year-olds, which would allow young adults to purchase, possess and consume alcohol after completing an alcohol education course similar to driver’s education. The young adults would only be eligible for the course after high school, but immediately upon turning 18 they would be allowed to drink in their homes under parental supervision – a sort of “learner’s permit,” McCardell said.

“We believe that young adults will act responsibly if we give them the opportunity,” he said.