Going Greek? College students consider pros and cons of membership
When Brandon Locke began his college career at Robert Morris University, he quickly found a campus family: Alpha Chi Rho fraternity, one of five men's frats at the Moon campus.
“Being in a fraternity is just like having a home away from home, and always having people there you can count on,” says Locke, 21. He is the vice president of Robert Morris' Interfraternity Council. “It's much more than ... letters. It's a brotherhood, is how I see it.”
One of the things that Locke, whose hometown is North Huntingdon, and his brothers explain to incoming freshmen is that today's Greeks, unlike the “Animal House” image, is “not what you see and know of stereotypical Greek life back in the day.”
With the start of a new school year, many young men and women entering college are considering rushing to join a sorority or fraternity. Joining a Greek organization is a big decision, though, and the Greek life, while offering many benefits, isn't for everyone, experts and members say.
“When looking at Greek life, there are pros and cons,” says college admissions expert Katherine Cohen, chief executive officer and founder of IvyWise, a New York City-based educational consulting company. “When we're counseling students, we advise them to look at everything before going down that road.”
Membership in a sorority or fraternity offers many benefits, Cohen says. Students can form deep connections that last beyond college, and join alumni networks that can be beneficial when looking for a job. Greek organizations provide many volunteer opportunities through each chapter's philanthropy charity work. The clubs offer leadership opportunities that seem to have paid off for many: 85 percent of key executives at Fortune 500 companies are fraternity and sorority members.
“There is something to be said for that,” Cohen says.
However, Greek membership isn't the only way to make friends and build a network: You can do that elsewhere in the college community and beyond, says Cohen, who did not join a sorority during her years at Brown University. She was involved with dancing, theater and teaching yoga and wouldn't have had time to join. Although many people think that Greeks have the best or the only good social life among a student population, Cohen says she didn't feel second-rate because she was not in a sorority.
“There are so many alternatives to Greek life where you can find smaller communities within a community,” she says. And if you can't find a club you like, you can found one, Cohen says.
Greek life does have its downside. Membership in a fraternity or sorority takes a big commitment of both time and money. It's not just membership dues; there are other costs, such as money for functions, formals, possible residency in a house, and the like. And with constant social events, some people may have a difficult time keeping up with their college workload.
Alexandra Robbins — author of the best-seller “Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities” — agrees. She spent a year undercover at a university following some sorority members and observed and heard about many positives, but also unhealthy things like excessive binge drinking, hazing and intense pressure to conform and fit the group's mold.
The good thing sororities offer, Robbins says, is a “ready-made social calendar.”
“You can always find something to do and someone to do it with,” she says. “You're likely to find some lifelong friends. Greek groups make the campus a little bit smaller so it's not so overwhelming. It's a way to feel like you have a home and an anchor.”
Still, prospective recruits for Greek life should do their research and look at the big picture, Robbins says. Membership in some organizations can be all-consuming and leave little time and money for anything else. Members in some groups must follow rules, such as dress codes.
“A lot of people go into these groups thinking they're just social groups,” she says. “They don't realize until it's too late that sororities and fraternities often try to control your life and identity — much more than just your social calendar.”
Scott Irlbacher, Robert Morris' director of special programs and student community standards, has observed many benefits of sorority and fraternity membership at the school. Greek students are less likely to go home on weekends, and they have higher GPAs and graduation rates — 21 percentage points higher than the general population — at Robert Morris, where about 9 percent of students are Greek.
Though Greek life may not be for everyone, Irlbacher says, any students with an interest should check it out, even though they risk rejection. They may find their home away from home.
“Every group has its own personality,” Irlbacher says. “It's a matter of finding that fit.”
Weighing a decision
Networking: One of the traditional selling points for Greek life is the connections one can make, not just with current chapter members, but with the network of former fraternity or sorority members in the business world. A fraternity is not a four-year college experience, like a school club; it's a lifetime involvement.
Housing: Fraternity housing is generally less expensive than living in a residence hall. But the cost depends on the fraternity or sorority and the year the student is in. Sharing an off-campus apartment may be cheaper than living in a dorm. And living in a fraternity can be more cost effective — but you have to do the homework.
Charitable work: Through various fundraisers, fraternities and sororities raise money for national and local charities, as well as individual causes. According to the North-American Interfraternity Conference, a trade association for 75 international and national men's fraternities, the groups raised $21.1 million for charity in the 2011-2012 school year.
Better numbers: Students who belong to fraternities and sororities generally have higher grade-point averages than the rest of the student body (though other factors may contribute). They also have higher freshman and sophomore retention rates and more service hours.
Financial, time commitments: Both can be substantial. Greek life involves many social engagements that need to be balanced with the class workload. Then there's the financial commitment for dues, functions and events. Get a specific dollar amount. There are many fraternity-related commitments that can interfere with studies.
Hazing: A fraternity could raise tens of thousands of dollars to buy puppies for needy children, but one hazing incident halfway across the country is what makes headlines and what people remember. Hazing is universally deplored by fraternity and sorority officials (and it should be pointed out that it occurs in other non-Greek organizations, such as athletic teams and bands, as well). According to a recent report by Bloomberg News, 59 students died in incidents involving fraternities since 2005, 10 of them in 2012 alone.
Party time: “Animal House” was an exaggeration, but there was a nugget of truth. A 2002 study by the Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention found that fraternities and sororities were among the groups that fostered a culture of drinking on college campuses. Check an organization's commitment to studies by looking at a fraternity or sorority's website and find the last three years of records of their grades. Parents can visit chapter houses and ask about the commitment to student success. “
They may not want you: Wanting to be part of Greek life doesn't necessarily mean you can. You still have to be accepted, and not everyone is.
— Chicago Tribune
Kellie B. Gormly is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7824.