Higher Drinking Age Leads to Stricter Policies

When James A. Messina ’86 recalls the social scene during his time at Harvard, he remembers falling asleep late on a weekend as The Isley Brothers’ “Shout” blasted from a room upstairs.

“Even in those days, it wasn’t like everyone headed off to the library,” says Messina, who served as the chair of the House Committee for North House—now known as Pforzheimer House. “There was always somewhere to have parties that were fun and good-natured.”

Likewise, Angela F. Schroeder ’86, the first female chair of the Kirkland House Committee, says one her fondest memories was hosting the “very popular” keg parties for the House on weekends.

“Rather than go out to bars in Harvard Square, students preferred to come to parties on campus because they knew they would run in to their friends,” Schroeder says.

But social gatherings on campus became more confined within Houses and individual dorm rooms when Massachusetts adopted a new law in June 1985 increasing the legal drinking age from 20 to 21. The hike was in response to federal legislation that required all states to enforce a drinking age of 21 or risk losing government highway funds.



According to Messina, Harvard parties in the 1980s involved mingling and dancing—as well as social drinking.

The drink of choice, according to Messina, was a cold can of beer, while the screwdriver came in at a close second because “it’s cheap and easy to make,” he says.

In response to the new state law, the College modified its liquor policy in October 1985. The revised policy not only reflected the new drinking age, but also added stricter enforcement procedures aimed at preventing all underage drinking.

Prior to this revision, according to Harvard First Marshal Joel A. Getz ’86, the alcohol rules on campus were reasonably lax.

“My sense is that there was not a lot of enforced restriction on alcohol consumption on campus [prior to the new policy],” he says. “I think the philosophy behind it was that people were better off drinking on campus, i.e. close to home, than going out into Boston to a bar and potentially having a problem further away.”

Under the new rules, only those with proper identification were able to obtain alcohol at House functions.

In addition, the new policy required advance College approval to serve alcohol in Harvard buildings when minors were present, and mandated that food and non-alcoholic beverages must be available when alcohol was served.

“It just became a big nuisance and introduced new complexities [to hosting parties],” Schroeder says, adding that the Kirkland House Masters at the time were “very strict about following all the rules.”

As a result, dorm rooms became a more popular location to socialize, because they were considered private parties, and therefore subject to less stringent rules.