Three Ways Fraternity & Sorority Life Makes a Difference on Campuses
By Dawn Wiese, Ph.D.
Strategy and finance, on the student life side of the higher education business, have been my perennial research interest. As such, assisting fraternity with overarching strategy is one of my professional concentrations. I have assisted many higher education institutions and related organizations with understanding higher education from a “big picture” perspective. My last post presented a case of why higher education needs fraternity and why fraternity must communicate its relevancy. Higher education, as an industry, is financially over-extended, likely facing cuts in staffing and overall budgets. Sorority and Fraternity Life can fill gaps where higher education may not have the same capacity as in previous years. Are fraternities and sororities truly prepared to respond to this mandate?
As shared in my last piece, a fraternity CEO recently wrote to a campus:
“Retention is going to be a major issue for higher education – we can help.
Loneliness, mental health issues and depression are an issue right now – we can help.
Academic challenges with the loss of a support group is an issue right now – we can help.”
Those are great sound bites. This week I test their veracity by highlighting Three Ways Fraternity & Sorority Life Makes a Difference on Campuses.
1. Fraternity as the Great Leveling Field
One often hears cries on campuses about how Greek Life is elitist, and that is one of its biggest problems. First, that simply is not accurate. Second, I have always found this an interesting argument made by higher education, an industry known for elitism.
Scott Galloway, a professor from NYU’s Stern School of Business, recently shared,
“No industry, other than health care, has raised its prices faster than education …. We have become drunk on exclusivity….When you have the head of Harvard admissions saying that he could double the freshman class at Harvard without sacrificing any quality, the correct question is, ‘Well, with a $37 billion budget, why wouldn’t you?” (LaRoche, 2020)
Higher education is, by design, an elite club. Only community colleges and open enrollment campuses run counter to that as other colleges and universities scramble for academic rankings to compete for the “best of the best” students who, eventually, as alumni, build endowments (read: saving accounts) that climb into the billions.
Greek Life plays the role of the great leveling field within higher education – students of like interests, both with and without resources, come together as brothers and sisters. Need some empirical research to back up this claim? Allow me to point you to the work of Chad Ahren and colleagues (2014), which used the National Survey on Student Engagement to study first-generation college students who are members of fraternities and sororities.
Are some organizations more exclusive than others? Sure they are…just as some colleges and universities are more exclusive than others, allowing graduates into elite clubs upon graduation (Who do you think stays at the Yale Club when visiting New York City?).
Fraternities and sororities seek members. I know a fraternity man who is now the managing partner of a multi-city law firm on the west coast — he did not come from means. I know a fraternity man, raised primarily by his grandmother on a small Oklahoma farm, who is now a leading partner with EY – he did not come from means. I know a fraternity man who, after completing his degree at a small college in the Midwest, worked his way up from that of an entry-level manager in the field to the number two position at AT&T – he did not come from means. Are there contrary examples? Sure, there are,but, that’s the point: Through a process of mutual selection, fraternity provides an opportunity for students to meet one another. In a similar way the dean of admissions at Harvard, through mutual selection, welcomes students to Cambridge each academic year.
2. Fraternity,Retention, and Academic Success
“Retention is going to be a major issue for higher education – we can help.”
My daughter is a currently a college sophomore and a member of a sorority. Since returning home to complete spring semester, she connects with her friends every day including the people in her chapter. One of those recent connections was through a virtual Spring Formal in place of the event they were missing on campus – complete with dressing up in their outfits (or not) and making snacks (or not). My daughter misses her campus, she misses her classes and her faculty, and she misses her peer group, including her sorority. All of these intertwine to make a campus experience. But, there’s much more to this example. We know fraternities and sororities improve retention through empirical, peer-reviewed studies (Debard and Sacks, 2010; Gathercole, 2019; Glass, 2012; Rullman, 2002).
Interestingly, the quote above was written to a college administrator who was attempting to restrict virtual recruitment of members for Spring Term 2020 at a flagship university. In an exchange with a fraternity chapter president, a staff member chastised the student for attempting to virtually reach out to prospective members given the Covid-19 crisis as recruitment activities on that campus had been suspended. The chapter president clarified that the recruitment was entirely virtual. But the campus administrator held firm. It took the CEO of the fraternity going over-the-head of this administrator to point out that: 1) This is potentially a violation of student Constitutional freedom; and, 2) Wasn’t the suspension of recruitment enacted before campuses were closed to prevent mass gatherings? With this pressure, the university backed off and virtual recruitment resumed. But, in the words of my daughter (who has become my office mate since returning home),
“Why would a school try to prevent students from reaching out to each other? If I didn’t have my friends right now, I don’t know what I would do!”
Where is one place that fraternities and sororities draw the line about their ranks? Academics. Students in Greek organizations are required to maintain a certain GPA. If they do not, students attend study halls and are mentored by other students. It’s no wonder fraternities and sororities help both retention and graduation rates. Again, empirical research backs this up (Biddix, 2014; Nelson et al, 2006).
As I shared in my last post, it is the responsibility of fraternity and sorority national offices and alumni to remind campus administrators of the valuable partnership these organizations provide.
3. Fraternity as Educators
There may be those who read this and state, “But fraternities hurt people, discriminate against women” among many other evils. Okay, now we’re getting at the really tough stuff. Please know, as the mother of a college student, I take all of this with great seriousness. But, I am also a former university vice president and dean, and what I KNOW to be fact:
- sometimes college students drink too much,
- sometimes college students haze,
- sometimes college students discriminate against one another
- and, such behaviors are not isolated to those who join Greek organizations.
Colleges are microcosms of our larger society. And, while our 24-hour news cycle notes every fraternity hazing or alcohol-related injury or death on a campus, what media does not do is highlight every college student alcohol-related death or hazing activity on a campus. Those who believe fraternity is the great offender should look up the number of deaths related to alcohol/other drugs on college campuses and then look at the number of those involving fraternity (I have). I think you’d be surprised. EVERY death is a tragedy. EVERY injury would be better to have not happened. But, numbers do not lie. Because someone joins a Greek organization simply does not mean a student is more likely to experience injury or death. In fact, national fraternities and sororities have guidelines for how social events must occur and education for students on social issues that exceed that of what the majority of college students receive.
One study recently highlighted the increased educational offerings of fraternity. With a hypothesis of expecting to find greater hypermasculinity among fraternity men, Corprew and Mitchell (2014) instead found, “A characteristic commonly associated with fraternity members – hypermasculinity – is actually more problematic for non-Greeks when it comes to sexually aggressive attitudes, or beliefs that “sex should be indiscriminate, rough, coercive and non-consensual.” The study notes research showing that consent training in fraternities may have decreased the likelihood of sexual assault in those communities.
In presenting these arguments, I do not suggest Greek Life is for everyone just like the Ultimate Frisbee Club isn’t for everyone. I do not suggest students who join Greek Life will not have academic struggles in college nor do I suggest all students who join fraternity will always be safe. Can someone write an essay like this that shows contrary information? Of course they can. As I said earlier, college campuses are microcosms of society. What I do know: fraternities and sororities offer a valuable facet of college life, and there is empirical evidence much of the work they do is done very well. Campuses need Greek Life this fall. Fraternities and sororities must be smart, be strategic, and double down their efforts to provide those social connections that contribute to making campuses those special places that they are.
Ahren, C., Bureau, D., Ryan, H., and Torres, V. (Spring 2014). First to go to college and first to “Go Greek”: Engagement in academically oriented activities by senior year first generation students who are fraternity/sorority members. Oracle: The Research Journal of the Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisors. 9 (1).
Biddix, P. (October 2014). Sorority Membership and Educational Outcomes: Results from a National Study. National Panhellenic Conference.
Corprew, C., and Mitchell, A. (September 2014) Keeping It Frat: Exploring the Interaction among Fraternity Membership, Disinhibition, and Hypermasculinity on Sexually Aggressive Attitudes in College-Aged Males Journal of College Student Development. 55 (6).
Debard, R., & Sacks, C. (June 2010). Fraternity/sorority membership: good news about first-year impact. Oracle: The Research Journal of the Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisors, 5(1),
Gathercole, A. (October 2019). The influence of fraternity and sorority membership on retention and GPA. Rowan University Digital Works.
Glass, N. (May 8, 2012). Examining the benefits of Greek Life. USA Today.
La Roche, J. (April 20, 2020). NYU professor rips on colleges for being ‘drunk on exclusivity,’ says corona virus will force change. Yahoo Finance.
Nelson, S., Halperin, S., Wasserman, T., Smith, C., and Graham, P. (February 2006). Effects of Fraternity/Sorority Membership and Recruitment Semester on GPA and Retention. Oracle: The Research Journal of the Association of Fraternity Advisors. 2(1).
Rullman, L. J. (September 2002). Research Shows Connection between Fraternity/Sorority Involvement and Retention. ACUI Bulletin, 70 (5).
 I believe, in reviewing this, Galloway was referencing Harvard’s endowment as opposed to its operating budget. Harvard’s endowment is approximately $40B.