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.