College students should learn the expected time commitment and expense before pledging a fraternity or sorority.
WHAT STUDENTS PICTURE when they think of Greek life may be as varied as the individual chapters themselves. Some may think of camaraderie, lifelong friendships, networking opportunities. Others may think of a heavy-drinking, hard-partying lifestyle in the popular 1978 comedic movie “Animal House.”
Considering the vast numbers of Greek organizations at colleges across the nation, how chapters conduct themselves varies.
“A lot of students think that Greek life is going to be like what they see in the movies, and they set their expectations accordingly. Other students are only exposed to what they see in media headlines. Neither of those things represent fraternity life as a whole,” says Alexandra Robbins, author of “Fraternity: An Inside Look at a Year of College Boys Becoming Men.”
“Only a small number of fraternities follow the model of what people see in the movies,” Robbins adds. “There aren’t as many ‘Animal House’ chapters as people think.”
A simple answer to “What is Greek life?” is that it is a community of students broken down into fraternities for men and sororities for women. These social organizations have national charters and are overseen by a Greek Life office at each campus.
Greek organizations are typically focused on developing leadership, philanthropy and community service and strong bonds among like-minded students.
Before a student joins a fraternity or sorority, he or she should consider what they want that experience to be.
Understand What You Want Out of Greek Life
“I think that prospective members of these organizations, students who are even beginning to think about the possibility of membership, need to ask themselves, fundamentally, why? Why are they thinking about joining? What is it they’re looking for from this experience?” says Damon Sims, vice president for student affairs at Pennsylvania State University—University Park.
For some students, party life may be the draw. Others are attracted to the shot at leadership positions, philanthropic opportunities and strong alumni support.
Party-hearty students may be surprised to find that statistics show Greek life members tend to graduate at a higher rate than average. Similarly, standards for grade-point average often means that some Greek chapters have a higher GPA than the overall campus.
“For first-year college students, fraternities provide friendship, a sense of community and higher levels of academic and social involvement. On many campuses, the average GPA for (Interfraternity Council) fraternity men is above the all-men’s average which is supported by fraternity requirements of members maintaining a specified grade point average or higher,” Todd Shelton, chief communication officer for the North American Interfraternity Conference, wrote in an email.
Benefits aside, when things go wrong in Greek life, it can come with extreme consequences. A scan of national news stories about fraternities reveals deadly incidents that have cost students their lives, often as a result of hazing and severe alcohol abuse.
Be Aware of the Risks and Choose Your Chapter Wisely
Students should ask themselves: “What are the dangers and risks associated with joining?” says Steve Veldkamp, executive director of the Timothy J. Piazza Center for Fraternity and Sorority Research and Reform at Penn State. The Piazza Center draws its name from a PSU student who died in 2017 as part of pledging activities to a now-banned fraternity, a death that resulted in arrests and lawsuits.
Veldkamp urges students to look for news stories about Greek life at the colleges they are interested in.
Another step is to contact the office on campus that oversees Greek life. Students should ask about the Greek GPA compared to overall campus, and service hours.
Organizational type may also be a factor. Veldkamp notes that student surveys indicate multicultural chapters drink less than peers.
Students should be especially wary of fraternities or sororities not affiliated with the university, experts note.
“If a fraternity hasn’t agreed to the campus rules, they might not be recognized by the school, which means they’re either underground or an unrecognized, unsanctioned chapter,” says Robbins.
“If a chapter is underground or unsanctioned, they may have done something to lose recognition from the university, and that itself is a red flag. If they’re not recognized by the university, then they are not beholden to its rules and oversight, which can also be troubling, because they’re not necessarily held accountable for their behavior.”
Robbins also cautions students to be aware of the tier system for ranking fraternity and sorority chapters on college campuses, which she describes as “one of the most dangerous aspects of Greek life.” Those rankings, she says, are often determined by looks, how hard a chapter parties and social status.
While a high ranking itself isn’t a red flag, pursuing that status may lead to dangerous behavior.
Other suggestions offered by experts for gauging the safety of individual chapters:
- Listen to the language fraternity brothers use to talk about women.
- Be wary of chapters that brag about how much they party.
- Check campus disciplinary records for fraternities and sororities.
- Look up news reports about Greek life at the college you’re interested in.
- If a fraternity or sorority has a house, pay attention to its condition.
Know the Costs and Commitment to Join a Fraternity or Sorority
Paying for college is difficult for many families, and going Greek can add to those expenses.
There may be application fees as well as dues that can range from a few hundred dollars a year to more than $2,000, depending on a variety of factors. Generally, dues follow a monthly schedule and cover social events, insurance, dues to the national or international chapter, and operational costs such as recruitment and upkeep of community spaces. Scholarships are often available, and some chapters have payment plans.
If a student is living in Greek housing, add room and board to the cost of being in a fraternity or sorority.
Sims urges parents to consider liability issues. He notes that national chapters often offer insurance, but that can be rescinded if an incident occurs in which rules are broken. Such a case may leave families on the hook for damages.
Sims urges parents to ask: “What would my liability be, or what would my child’s liability be, if something went awry?”
Check Out Greek Life Participation Rates on Campus
Sims says that students often feel their collegiate experience will be inadequate without joining a fraternity or sorority. But many students still have valuable college experience without going Greek. At Penn State, for example, only about 17% of the student body is Greek, Sims says.
While Greek life participation varies by college, it’s much higher at some schools than others. Here are the schools with the highest number of undergraduates in fraternities and sororities in fall 2018, according to data collected for the 2020 Best Colleges rankings.
|SCHOOL||LOCATION||STUDENTS IN FRATERNITIES|
|Washington and Lee University||Lexington, VA||75%|
|Welch College||Gallatin, TN||71%|
|DePauw University||Greencastle, IN||67%|
|Wabash College||Crawfordsville, IN||64%|
|Millsaps College||Jackson, MS||58%|
|SCHOOL||LOCATION||STUDENTS IN SORORITIES|
|Welch College||Gallatin, TN||80%|
|Washington and Lee University||Lexington, TN||75%|
|Bowie State University||Bowie, MD||64%|
|The University of the South||Sewanee, TN||64%|
|Furman University||Greenville, SC||61%|
Joining a fraternity or sorority can provide an instant infusion of friends, but there is value in taking time to find the right chapter.
“I understand that when you ‘rush’ first thing freshman year, then you’ll automatically have a group of people to help you navigate that first semester. But I think it’s better to adjust on your own and to sort of find your place on campus before you choose your chapter,” Robbins says.
This story is an updated excerpt from the U.S. News “Best Colleges 2016” guidebook, which features in-depth articles, rankings and data.