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Check your drinking privilege

This is the first article in a series about alcohol and the college experience.

The U.S. public feels that the nation’s business and political elites are held to a different standard of the law than the “common man” is. When it comes to underage drinking laws at the country’s top universities, the public is right and has reason to be outraged.


There’s a peculiar double standard in how drinking laws are enforced on college campuses. My friends who attend state schools talk about police raids on fraternity parties, large arrests, and regular patrols to confiscate alcohol from underage students.

Their stories seemed foreign to me and my friends at Ivy League schools. We had heard of campus police breaking up parties for noise complaints, but no one actually knew of anyone being punished — by the school or local law enforcement — for underage drinking. In our memories, there have never been raids on the University’s eating clubs or Harvard’s finals clubs.

The Ivy League — except for Dartmouth and the University of Pennsylvania — is lax on punishing students for alcohol infractions. Everyone at the schools knows it, too. I recently received an email for a club pre-game that said, “You will never be in trouble for being intoxicated.”

The reason for this isn’t that Ivy League students drink significantly less than students at state schools. Princeton, for example, is far from a dry campus. Its UMatter initiative says that 72 percent of students use alcohol and at least 45 percent have spent a minimum of one day drinking during the past month. This is roughly consistent with a report by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism that found that 60 percent of college students consumed alcohol within the past month.

Liquor laws vary by state, and some have looser restrictions. But this does not explain why Harvard — a school of approximately 6,700 undergraduate students — issued only 19 referrals for liquor law violations in 2015. The Harvard Crimson has chronicled the high rates of alcohol use by underage freshman. Both Massachusetts state law and school policies ban underage possession of alcohol. By comparison, Northeastern University — which is a few miles away and has about 14,000 undergraduates — issued 679 referrals that same year. Clearly the differences in state drinking laws also don’t account for the Ivy League’s low alcohol punishment rate.

The truth is that alcohol laws are loosely enforced in the Ivy League because of the wealth and status of many students’ families. This is especially apparent at the University.


New Jersey outlaws the possession of alcohol by those under 21 years of age, but there is a loophole that permits it on private property. The state assembly granted municipalities the power to outlaw all underage drinking in 2000.

Since then, the town of Princeton has considered ordinances that would do so in 2001, 2013, and 2016. They failed to pass each time. Princeton and East Windsor are the only two municipalities of 12 in Mercer County without such an ordinance.

The University also has a contrived alcohol policy. Rather than ban all underage drinking — as other colleges in New Jersey have done — it circuitously explains violations of the alcohol policy and then builds in a loophole that permits underage students to drink in their dorms.

When townships in Mercer County considered passing ordinances that outlawed underage drinking on private property in 2000, political science professor David Robevich told The New York Times, “I live in Hamilton Township, where the response is ‘All the kids drink.’ This law is meeting with resistance in suburbia because it will be applied to nice white middle-class kids.”

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Herein lies the point. Parents of Ivy League students don’t want their children to be held back from becoming a Wall Street executive or national politician because they were charged with underage drinking while in college. As a result, these schools have become lenient on enforcing the law. Or, in the University’s case, letting the existing loophole persist.

The schools are doing this to our own detriment. Ivy League students often go on to become national leaders in their respective fields. Not enforcing underage drinking laws sends the message that they are above the rule of law.

Further, we often forget that these laws were created to prevent young people from becoming addicted to alcohol. While the University has education and counseling programs, they are less effective than enforcement. Minimum drinking age laws are supported by decades of scientific research. Arguing that they are ineffective would be equivalent to denying climate change or saying that vaccines don’t work.

Several prominent political families, including the Kennedys, have had problems with alcoholism. The late Senator Ted Kennedy went to Harvard and struggled with alcoholism, albeit a decade after his college years. Seeing that many Ivy Leaguers are also likely to become high-profile politicians and business leaders, the need to enforce these rules only becomes more necessary to prevent the onset of alcohol dependency at a young age.

Ultimately, the blame for these loose rules falls on the Princeton Council and the University administration, not the Princeton Town Police Department or the Department of Public Safety officers who have been adequately enforcing the set of flawed policies that they have been given.

To fix the problem, the Council should pass the private property underage drinking ordinance — with parental and religious exceptions — that has been proposed multiple times. The ordinance should have some sort of punishment either in the form of a fine or community service — but not something that appears on a criminal record — that serves as a deterrent.

For the University, I recommend that the Board of Trustees to commission another report on alcohol abuse like that of 1999. In addition, the administration should eliminate the dorm loophole in the Alcohol and Drug Policies and encourage stronger enforcement during a multiyear phase-in process that allows students to adjust to the new standards.

Nothing will likely change in the near future. As underage University students drink in the eating clubs and at their pre-games this weekend, I ask them to check their drinking privilege. They will be able to drink alcohol all night and return to their dorms without an encounter with law enforcement or campus authorities. But students outside of the Ivy League will not be so privileged.

Liam O’Connor is a freshman from Wyoming, Del. He can be reached at