With the fall semester soon upon us, some incoming college freshmen, as well as their parents, may be wondering whether the student should consider joining a fraternity or sorority. And it's something students in high school may be thinking about as they look ahead to their future college careers.
Is Greek life for them? What are the advantages? Are there drawbacks?
The first step in the process is to put aside any preconceived notions.
"I'd be hard-pressed to come up with a business, an organization, a government agency that's as maligned as fraternities or sororities," said Pat J. Bosco, vice president for student life/dean of students at Kansas State University. "Just look at TV, look what's on cable. I can't come up with one movie that portrays Greek life in a positive way."
There are pluses, there are minuses. There are gray areas. Times have changed, and fraternities and sororities at times seem to be struggling to find their place.
"For the most part these are incredibly dynamic organizations that serve some awfully good purposes on campus — and can do more," Bosco said. "What we need to do is change the course to look toward the academic missions of our colleges and ask how can we contribute to that mission, especially student success. How can we measure it and improve it?"
Here's a look at some of the pros and cons to weigh if considering a fraternity or sorority:
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.
"I have seen the benefits of that for some students who look to their fraternity or sorority upon graduation when they're looking for a job," said Katherine Cohen, the CEO and founder of IvyWise, an educational consulting company that helps students gain admission to everything from pre-kindergarten to graduate school.
Of course, in 2013 there are myriad other ways to build your network. Cohen also pointed out that a university offers many other opportunities to meet people in small group settings, "whether it's joining the newspaper or a dance company or an a cappella group. If (a student has) other interests, I encourage you to look at all the opportunities to find students on campus with common interests."
Housing: Fraternity housing is generally less expensive than living in a residence hall. "If you check out most websites of Greek affairs offices on college campuses, they're very straightforward on pricing and financial expectations," Bosco said. And the fraternity or sorority house experience also exposes a student to more real-life situations — the house must be maintained, bills paid, a cook hired, etc.
Cohen said the cost depends on the fraternity or sorority and the year the student is in. She said 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. "Speak to someone in the frat. What are the real costs? Have them lay them out. Find out if they'll be saving or not."
Charitable work: Through various fundraisers, fraternities and sororities raise money for national and local charities, as well as individual causes. (Earlier this year, members of Phi Alpha Tau at Emerson College in Boston raised more than $20,000 to help pay for a transgendered chapter member's female-to-male surgery.) 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 (nicindy.org/press).
Better numbers: Bosco said that students belonging to fraternities and sororities generally have higher grade-point averages than the rest of the student body (though other factors may be a factor). They also have higher freshman and sophomore retention rates and more service hours, Bosco noted.
Financial, time commitments: Both can be substantial. Cohen pointed out the Greek life involves many social engagements that need to be balanced with the class workload. Then there's the financial commitment. "There are dues, functions, events," she said. "We've seen a lot of hidden costs families might not have thought of before the rush process."
Just as if you were buying a car, get all the costs spelled out for you. Peter Smithhisler, CEO of the North-American Interfraternity Conference, said not to be satisfied with a group's ballpark number. Get a specific dollar amount. "Costs for chapter dues, costs for insurance, if there's a housing component. ... The fraternity and sorority should be upfront. Don't be afraid to ask, 'What should I get for this money?' And if they can't or won't answer, look elsewhere."
As for the time commitment, Bosco suggested that incoming freshmen decrease their course loads their first semester. If a freshman typically carries 15 hours, go with 12. There are too 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). Still, it does happen. According to a recent report by Bloomberg News, 59 students died in incidents involving fraternities since 2005, 10 of them in 2012 alone.
"I am on record as adamant that hazing has no place in the fraternity or sorority experience and should be reported immediately," Smithhisler said. "Go in with the expectation, 'I will not be hazed.' They should ask the fraternity or sorority that question specifically. I joined the chapter I belonged to 30 years ago and asked that question, and they kept their word."
"There isn't a national organization or local group that doesn't have a zero tolerance policy when it comes to hazing," Bosco added. "National leaders, local chapter members are doing everything they can to eliminate all aspects of hazing. My rule is, if you think it's hazing, it's hazing. Instances when they occur have to be dealt with in a no-tolerance manner and be dealt with quickly."
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.
One way to check an organization's commitment to studies is to look at a fraternity or sorority's website and find the last three years of records of their grades. Bosco also suggested that parents visit chapter houses and ask about the commitment to student success. "Outstanding chapters recruiting young men involve parents along the way. I would look for that," he said.
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.
Challenges: Bosco says that fraternities and sororities need to work harder in several areas, such as focusing on their successes and connecting better with the academic side of the university.
"They're combating an awful lot of misconceptions and their brand is blurred," he said. "The best way for them to look to the future is to partner with academic missions that are strategic and will make sense to a lot of stakeholders — faculty, boards of trustees, prospective students, family members. They have to get serious about their contributions to students' success. Specifically, freshman and sophomore retention rates, graduation rates, and if they're going to be bragging about networking, let's quantify that with (numbers about) jobs and internships for members."
Smithhisler says the vast majority of students seeking membership are what he calls "maybe joiners." They're not sure if Greek life is for them. He would advise them to "enter into the recruitment experience with some good questions: Will I be valued? Will my personal experiences contribute to the overall success of this group? Will I have an opportunity to practice my leadership, perhaps have some fun? Will this complement my academic goals?
"What usually happens is they'll find their place or they decide to go in a different direction in college. Both answers are just fine. There shouldn't be any pressure to do it."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun