The Greek System: Should College Students Join Fraternities or Sororities?

Since I began writing and speaking about higher education in preparation for my forthcoming book, How to Succeed at College and Beyond: The Art of Learning, I have been asked about my views of the Greek System. While fraternities and sororities are quite wonderful experiences for some, we need to inquire whether on balance they have outlived their usefulness.

I. The Greek System in 2015
I begin with a question: Were the Greek system proposed today as way of improving campus life for colleges and universities, would it be approved? I am convinced that at most colleges and universities, the answer would be "No." At Cornell, where I teach, with over 1000 extra-curricular and service activities and a plethora of ways to find a comfortable community of friends, what would be the reason for approving such a system? Would anyone imagine the necessity of the Greek system in 2015 were it not here already?

Fraternities and sororities date to an era of campus parietal rules that governed men's interaction with women living in residential facilities. These rules have long since disappeared. They also date from a time when there were far fewer other activities on campus. The fraternities and sororities provided a social community and held the promise of valuable future business--mostly for men in the early days--and social contacts with those who belonged to chapters at other colleges of the same house.

At some point, major universities and colleges that still retain the Greek system will need to consider whether the Greek system, on balance, still serves a useful purpose or is an anachronism from a different time. This is particularly relevant at those universities and colleges that offer many opportunities for social interaction, community service, and leadership, all of which draw upon various student abilities and fulfill diverse student interest and needs.

I believe fraternities and sororities have outlived their usefulness. Were they proposed today, administrators, professors and hosts of students would agree that leadership could be developed in hundreds of existing groups. These groups include athletics (varsity, club, and intramural sports), student government, religious organizations, and political clubs, as well as campus publications, musical groups (band, orchestra, a cappella singing, etc.), and dance and theatre groups.

Fraternities and sororities tend to breed homogeneity and conformity in the form of shared social, ethical and political attitudes and behavior. Most of them encourage alcohol consumption, including underage and illegal drinking. Finally, they absorb time that could be better spent on academic work and extra-curricular activities, including community service. Because of these factors, Greek organizations may at times reduce student innovation and creativity. From my observation, fraternities and, to a lesser extent, sororities impose a kind of conformity that stifles growth and creates anxiety about being different or not going along with accepted mores.

Here is a fair question for students to ask: In terms of personal growth, which includes developing independent views, is it better to live in a dorm or residential college where there is more economic and social diversity and where getting along does not mean subscribing to the views of your fraternity brothers or sorority sisters?

According to Cornell former President David Skorton, "At Cornell, high-risk drinking and drug use are two to three times more prevalent among fraternity and sorority members than elsewhere in the student population."

In light of that statistic and my other objections, I doubt that the Greek system is worth maintaining and believe Cornell and other universities and colleges should a) take the bold step of looking into alternatives; and/or b) use instances of fraternity misbehavior---and sorority misbehavior which occurs much less often--to permanently eliminate the offending houses one by one and use the buildings for something like the very successful Cornell undergraduate residential college system that has been instituted as an alternative. I am a house fellow at one of the residential colleges at Cornell; here the students are more diverse than those in the Greek system, hazing does not exist, and there is a rich intellectual life complemented by social activities.

II. Dartmouth
Dartmouth students have become increasingly impatient with the Greek System. Tyler Kingkade, Huffington Post Senior Editor, reports: "More than four times as many people suggested the Greek system was a problem than those who said it was not. In addition to the roughly 260 who said it should be abolished, dozens of others called on the college to increase regulation or to require all houses to go coed."

A front page editorial in the Oct. 17, 2014 Dartmouth Student Newspaper called for abolishing the Greek system:

Let's do what needs to be done, the only action in line with our principles of community, and abolish the Greek system. . . . For many, Greek life takes precedence over academics. It is an investment (perhaps a risky one), a path to acceptance, friends, sex, drugs, love and jobs. Since so many students' lives seemingly depend on the system, it's no wonder that administrators have failed to abolish it, despite the numerous accounts of hazing and abuse that have been documented over the years. . . . The Greek system undeniably enables and institutionalizes harmful behaviors.

No, Greek life is not the root of all the College's problems or of broader societal ills. But as a system, it amplifies students' worst behavior. It facilitates binge drinking and sexual assault. It perpetuates unequal, gendered power dynamics and institutionalizes arbitrary exclusivity. It divides students -- the system as a whole separates freshmen from upperclassmen, men from women. Membership draws lines among friends. . . .

Many attribute increased confidence levels and better leadership and management skills to their Greek houses. We do not seek to discredit the positive experiences that many have within Greek spaces. But we cannot let emotional arguments cloud what is objectively best for our school and its students. We have to look past our short years here and think about the College's future, which means eliminating an antiquated system. Abolishing Greek life, though not a be-all, end-all solution, would offer Dartmouth a chance to rebuild its social life from the ground up.

Some months later Dartmouth President Philip Hanlon announced a ban on hard liquor and that Dartmouth was monitoring the behavior and role of the Geek system.

According to a 2014 Bloomberg editorial:

Although a majority of college students drink, abusive drinking is far more prevalent in fraternities. One study of 17,000 students at 140 four-year colleges found that almost 90 percent of fraternity house residents engage in binge drinking (five or more drinks at a time), compared with 45 percent for nonmembers. Binge drinking is associated with a host of ills, from neurological damage to assaults.

Alcohol abuse also plays a central role in one of the most corrosive aspects of fraternities: hazing of new members in initiation rituals that are often brutal and vile....

The anti-intellectualism that dominates so much of fraternity life--the frat-boy culture of spring-break lore and "Animal House"--also takes a toll on its members' academic performance. Even adjusting for differences in ability, age, and other factors, fraternity members tend to have lower grades and underperform compared with their nonmember peers in tests of cognitive skills.

Fraternities also are at cross-purposes with the goal of promoting campus diversity. As a whole, they are more homogenous than the overall college student population.

III. Why Does the Greek System Survive?
The Greek system thrives for many reasons, but an important one is its emphasis on college partying which--along with other demands the Greek system makes on its members--results in a substantial decline in study time. (Study time is the inclusive term for class preparation, homework, paper writing, and exam study.) For some students, fraternities and sororities become extremely time-consuming and replace a focus on academics or other activities. The Greek system often encourages a kind of sectarianism in which membership in the fraternity or sorority takes place over commitment to the larger community.

While residential colleges and universities have always had a social component, that component seems to be greater now, although it of course varies by program and university. Certainly some of the partying--taking place even on weekdays with Thursday being a particular focus--derives from the Greek system, where beer can be accessible 24-7.

Why has this occurred? Why have some college administrators and trustees allowed colleges to be turned into party circuses on weekends and sometimes during the week? Why do they turn a blind eye to underage drinking and on occasion use of illegal substances? Why do they fail to acknowledge that sexual harassment and abuse as well as demeaning and dangerous hazing are rampant on campuses? Often these issues are generated by the Greek system, particularly fraternities.

One answer to the questions above is that administrators and trustees are following the money. They are supporting a system that attracts students and, they hope, will turn some of the wealthy and financially successful students into donors. They believe that this partying culture is what many students want and why they choose a particular college as well as in some cases why they choose a particular Greek system "party house" in which such behavior is encouraged.

Many students attend colleges with social activities--the prospect of "having a blast"--uppermost in their minds. Students spend grant and loan money on bar bills and social activities that have little to do with education. Once rowdy drinking parties revolve around fraternity and sorority tailgating events at football and basketball games, but at some large universities these campus-wide celebrations are held for almost any event or holiday.

With many less competitive colleges eager, if not desperate, for students to enroll students and to pay soaring tuition, fraternities and sororities serve that goal by attracting some students who might not otherwise be in college. Furthermore, some of these soaring expenses of major universities derive from their competitive need to turn their dormitories, dining halls, and gym facilities into those of a three star resort and their athletic facilities into that of an Olympic site, remodeled and new Greek houses can also add to the student costs.

As Caitlin Flanagan puts it in her March 2013 cover story in The Atlantic entitled, "The Dark Power of Fraternities": "[F]raternities provide colleges with unlimited social programming of a kind that is highly attractive to legions of potential students, most of whom are not applying to ivy-covered rejection factories, but rather to vast public institutions and obscure private colleges that are desperate for students." I have been told by students at various schools that they would not have attended a school without a Greek system, but when I ask Cornellians if they would have turned down Cornell for another school or chosen not to apply were there no fraternities or sororities, they never answer yes to either question.

IV. Issues to Consider Before You Join the Greek System

A. How Much Does the Party Culture, in which the Greek System Plays a Significant Role, Affect the Nature of the College Educational Experience?

It would be unfair to put the predominant blame for the decrease in study time on the Greek system. But the demands of the Greek system--including the pledging period and, later, compulsory meetings as well as various activities and expectations---may contribute to the decline in study time.

Even if the evidence is not clear about whether Greek students study less or get lower grades--and I have found studies both pro and con--the cost in hours is excessive. Some of the Greek social activities, like making by hand silly required gifs by older sorority student for their younger or "little sisters" and vice versa, are not only time consuming, but seem more appropriate to 12 year olds than to mature young adults. Other required gifts are simply financially costly.

All too few college students think of their education as a full-time job requiring an investment of time out of class equal in hours to twice the credit hour. This formula for study time was once considered the basic rule of thumb for college success; certainly this was true in 1959-63 when I was an undergraduate. Two hours per credit is still the standard I use for independent study courses.

According to Richard Arum and Josipa Eokas, "[T]here has been a 50 percent decline in the number of hours a student spends studying and preparing for classes from several decades ago." They speculate that "[O]ne possible reason for a decline in academic rigor and, consequentially, in writing and reasoning skills, is that the principal evaluation of faculty performance comes from student evaluations at the end of the semester. Those evaluations, Arum says, tend to coincide with the expected grade that the student thinks he or she will receive from the instructor."

In one 2011 research project, college students averaged 15 hours a week of study time, with engineers averaging 19 hours, and those in the social sciences and business averaging 14 hours. A 2014 study puts the average at 17 hours. I have seen numbers as low as 10 to 13 hours. Some schools still recommend 2 hours per week for every credit hour, but this recommendation seems not to be taken seriously by most students at most schools. In fact, I have discovered that most current students have never heard of it.

B. At Many Colleges, Significant Social Problems are Associated with the Greek System.

In some places, as Flanagan observes;

[F]raternities are now mightier than the colleges and universities that host them. . . The organizations raise millions of dollars for worthy causes, contribute millions of hours in community service, and seek to steer young men toward lives of service and honorable action. They also have a long, dark history of violence against their own members and visitors to their houses, which makes them in many respects at odds with the core mission of college itself.

Hardly a week goes by without a report of an alcohol related death or a story about date rape or other abusive misbehavior taking place at a fraternity, and often nothing more occurs than a ritualistic announcement from the school administration about "deep regret" and "looking into the incident." Outrageous misbehavior occurs, in part, because many fraternities demean women by objectifying them as sexual objects, and that stereotyping can lead at worst to non-consensual sexual behavior. We have ample evidence that fraternities and sororities are sites of more frequent anti-social behavior than is the case for any other sites where students live.

Let me cite some data:

According to the U.S. Department of Education's Higher Education Center, 75% of fraternity members engaged in heavy drinking, compared with 49% of other male students. Likewise, 62% of sorority members engaged in binge drinking versus 41% of non-sorority members. . . . .More students engaged in drinking at fraternity and sorority houses than any other on-campus venue or residence hall. According to the Harvard School of Public Health's College Alcohol Study, 75% of students living in fraternity and sorority houses were heavy drinkers, compared to 45% of students who lived in non-Greek housing and 35% of the overall student population.

We also have evidence that more sexual assaults occur in fraternities and that the victims are likely to be sorority members:

Fraternities' group norms and attitudes toward women and sex have led to this rape culture environment. According to research from the journal Sex Roles, individual fraternity men are more likely to display objectifying images of women in their rooms, . . . and believe women want to engage in rough sexual acts even if they act disinterested.

IV. Other Greek Life Issues
Before joining the Greek system, you also need to consider the financial and personal costs. In "Greek Letters at a Price," Risa C. Doherty offers an interesting perspective on the hidden costs of joining a sorority. Not only are there monthly or semester dues, but there are house fees and various social expenditures incurred by social activities and big sister (or brother) relationships with incoming little sisters (or brothers); these expenditures for both younger and older students can be in the hundreds of dollars. One parent claims to have spent over $3200 in the student's first year.

Since fraternities and sororities tend to choose members who are like themselves, they tend to contribute to campus ethnic and socio-economic divisions. They often become enclaves where similar political views, social codes, and economic status prevail. Often the fraternities and sororities focus more on social occasions--mixers--than on serious issues. Rarely do campus protests against social injustices originate in the Greek system. Historically, fraternities have been less than tolerant of gays and at worst have encouraged homophobia.

Another significant downside of the Greek system is that students who do not get chosen by the more prestigious houses often question their self-worth, and those not chosen at all feel ostracized. Moreover, the selection process often does not measure intellect, social maturity, or ethics, but physical attractiveness, economic status, and "fitting in" to the existing house culture and mores. Of course, one could argue with some cynicism that not getting everything we want when we want it is good preparation for life, but that does not alleviate painful disappointment.

Abusive hazing polices associated with initiation have at times resulted in injuries and even deaths. But, we do need to remember that hazing is not restricted to fraternities and sororities. Varsity teams, especially males ones, and college bands have also been implicated in abusive incidents and unacceptable behavior that jeopardize the health of students.

My advice to students: If anyone asks you to do something that is abusive, compromises your dignity, or negatively affects your physical or emotional health and sense of self in the name of pleasing someone or creating commitment to a group--whether it be a fraternity, sorority, team or other group--walk away immediately.

V. The Counter-Argument (and Some Responses)
Let us turn to reasons proposed for joining the Greek system, and also consider their validity.

Travis Apgar, Associate Dean of Students, and the person directly in charge of Cornell Greek Life, claims: "The leadership, self-governance, integrity, and interpersonal skills that are developed, combined with the outside of the classroom educational experiences such as community service opportunities is what makes belonging so special."

I have learned from students is that the main advantage of membership in the Greek system is that belonging overcomes a sense of loneliness and gives students a sense of being part of a community that cares about them. In a sense it breaks down the campus--particular that of a large university with many lecture classes numbering in the hundreds-- into smaller manageable units. Many members form lifetime friendships.

Many students and alumni believe fraternities and sororities do enrich the lives of young adults. They provide a community and may give students a chance to take on a leadership role within the community. Proponents of the Greek system believe that fellow fraternity and sorority members from other colleges and universities provide an important networking base and will be more likely to hire them or recommend them for membership in prestigious social and community groups. While local networking can be found not only in other extra-curricular campus activities as well as various other living arrangements, these networks are limited to individual campuses and graduates and the Greek system's network extends into the much larger social and business world of graduates of all chapters of a particular sorority and fraternity. However, in today's world, with its emphasis on merit, skills, and diversity, I am not sure this "old boy" network is as important as it once was, especially for employment.

Another argument I hear is that fraternities and sororities do worthwhile philanthropic work and community outreach and such outreach can add to a resume. In recent years, notwithstanding the strong position of the Greek system on some campuses, many other organizations have developed to involve students in the community. In fact such involvement in other organizations has become a crucial part in resume building. Furthermore, Greek members have told me that in fact little time is devoted to community outreach and claims of philanthropic activity are mostly window-dressing.

I have often been told by students--including by some who excelled academically--how much the fraternity and sorority system meant to them, particularly in the second term of their freshman year and their sophomore year. However, I have been told by many juniors and seniors in the Greek sysytem--and in my view some of the very best students--that they feel that fraternities and sororities are a tad claustrophobic and that they now seek a wider variety of friendsand activities. My advice: If you do join, be sure you participate in at least one other campus activity, and do not let your fraternity or sorority became the focal point of your college life.

Knowing of my skepticism about the Greek system in 2014, my honors thesis student Christian Kinsella, Cornell '14 observes, "I appreciate [your] acceptance that fraternities do work for some. I agree that they are not necessary or even ideal, but my diverse group of friends from Cornell would have been non-existent without Zeta Beta Tau (I know this is contrary to the norm, where fraternities perpetuate separatism)." Camille Finn '15 adds:

[T]he most valuable thing I have gotten out of my sorority experience has been the lifelong friends that I have made. My first semester at Cornell was very hard and I didn't have many friends; I felt pretty lonely at times. When I joined a sorority second semester I began to feel a sense of belonging here, and the enjoyment that I got out of the sorority [was] reflected in my overall happiness and success at Cornell. The network of people that a sorority gives you includes girls from different backgrounds who share your same values and interests, and alumni who truly care about developing a personal connection with you and the sorority. You can definitely find these things through different organizations and venues at Cornell, but my sorority has given me many irreplaceable experiences that have shaped my growth as a person at this school and beyond.

I have indicated in the preceding pages why I am skeptical that the experiences she values could not be found elsewhere.

Another argument in favor of the Greek system that I often hear is that major alumni donors would be offended if the Greek system were abolished, in part because their allegiance is as much or more to their fraternities and sororities than to the university. However, I have known and know many of the major givers to Cornell, and I am most doubtful that their interest in Cornell derives from fraternity affiliation. Were Cornell to abolish the Greek system, there would be some alumni dissatisfaction and grumbling, but I would argue that the long-term gain in civility and prestige would more than offset the loss in funds, and that loss would come not from the foremost givers but from secondary ones. Most of the trustees and principal donors think of themselves as representing Cornell and not their fraternities and sororities, if they belonged to one. To an extent, these individuals and families think of themselves as custodians for the life and future welfare of the university as a whole.

Yet another argument against abolishing the Greek system here and elsewhere is that such a move would leave colleges and universities without enough housing, especially since they do not own many of the buildings housing fraternities and sororities I have looked into this at Cornell. Of the 39 fraternity residences at Cornell, about a third are owned by Cornell. The rest are owned or rented by the fraternities and sororities. But, if the Greek system were abolished, to whom could the fraternities and sororities that own their houses sell them except to Cornell which would then use most of them as residences and perhaps a few for some other function.

Landlords who rent houses to fraternities or sororities could just as easily rent them to the university or individual students--or sell the houses to Cornell. That houses on campus cannot be sold to a commercial enterprise and that the ones off campus are zoned as residential would limit if not prevent the possibility of sales to businesses. Cornell could buy those that they do not own and turn them into college residences or sites for academic programs, although housing needs probably would demand the former.

VI. What Happens When the Greek System is Abolished?
Travis Apgar, the aforementioned Cornell Associate Dean of Students in charge of the Greek system, argues that it would take less effort and money to improve the Greek system than to abolish it, but I am not sure.

Colleges that have abolished the Greek system, such as Middlebury, Amherst, Williams, and Colby, are hardly immune to such social problems as excessive drinking and sexual harassment. But the administrators of these colleges do think they are better off without the Greek system.

Apparently, a small number of students at some of the aforementioned colleges may belong to so-called underground fraternities. Indeed, Amherst as of July 1, 2014 threatened to expel or suspend all the 90 (of a student body of 1800) students who belong to underground fraternities.

VII. Conclusion:
While not dismissing the positive role that fraternities and sororities have played and do play for some students, my advice to students is to be wary of the Greek system and alert to the alternatives in terms of living arrangements and sources of friendship, I have known many students whose initial enthusiasm waned and were afraid to deactivate lest they would be ostracized by their former brothers and sisters. Do not join a fraternity or sorority simply because a few friends are joining; if they are real friends, you will not lose them. If you are thinking about joining, consider "dry" houses where alcohol is not permitted. For some students, waiting until their sophomore year to rush gives them time to think more maturely about joining rather than simply following the herd as freshmen. Ask yourself whether your student life will be richer if you try a few terms without the Greek system; you may find by your sophomore year that you have found other resources and don't need that system at all.

Author of the recent
Reading the European Novel to 1900 and the well-received 2012 book Endtimes? Crises and Turmoil at the New York Times (Excelsior Editions of SUNY Press), which appeared in an updated 2014 new paperback edition, Daniel R. Schwarz is Frederic J. Whiton Professor of English and Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow at Cornell University where he has won Cornell's major teaching prizes. He also writes on higher education, including his book In Defense of Reading: Teaching Literature in the Twenty-First Century, and a book in press on the undergraduate experience entitled How to Succeed in College and Beyond: The Art of Learning.

Daniel R. Schwarz is Frederic J. Whiton Professor of English and Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow at Cornell University where he has won Cornell's major teaching prizes. He also writes on higher education, including his book In Defense of Reading: Teaching Literature in the Twenty-First Century, and a book in press (late Feb. 2016) on the undergraduate experience entitled How to Succeed in College and Beyond: The Art of Learning. (Hardback:ISBN 9781118974841; Paperback: ISBN 9781118974858).

Among Schwarz's other books are the recent Reading the European Novel to 1900 and the well-received 2012 book Endtimes? Crises and Turmoil at the New York Times (Excelsior Editions of SUNY Press), which appeared in an updated 2014 new paperback edition.

He blogs on higher education and the media for the Huffington Post. He can be reached at drs6@cornell.edu and followed on twitter at www.twitter.com/danRSchwarz and https://www.facebook.com/SchwarzEndtimes.

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