There are a lot of factors that can affect the impact of the Greek system on a college campus:
- The type of Greek system
- The size of the overall college campus
- The percentage of students in fraternities and sororities
- When rush takes place
Greek houses can play very different roles in college life. We encourage you to examine carefully what type of college will work best for you, and whether the presence or absence of a Greek system is a factor in your decision.
What is Greek life?
Greek systems consist of co-ed and, mostly, single-sex fraternities and sororities. Most of them use Greek letters, such as Sigma Phi Epsilon, to designate the name of the house. Some also go by school-specific nicknames. Depending on the school, they may or may not play a large role in student life.
Many fraternities and sororities are part of national, privately run organizations, such as the Delta Delta Delta ("Tri-Delt") sorority. Others were established locally on campuses, or left the national group to become independent. Often these houses split off from their national system due to differences over racial integration, social policies, or other issues during the latter half of the twentieth century. Some local houses rejoined their national system when the nationals changed their policies to become more progressive.
Campus housing and Greek life
Greek houses are so-called because they often serve as residential living and social environments for members. This was part of their original purpose in a time when many colleges did not maintain campus housing, including their own dormitories or dining halls. Fraternities and sororities offered a place for students to live, study, socialize, and eat. Often they hired cooks and housekeeping staff, paid for by members' dues.
Many houses no longer have in-house cooks or dining and some Greek organizations are not residential. Members live in college housing or off-campus, but belong to what is essentially a social and service organization. In some cases, colleges will own the house of a Greek organization; in others, the fraternity or sorority, or its national corporation, will own the house and be responsible for maintaining it.
Evaluating Greek impact on college life
Students shaping their college list or heading off to college need to watch for the pitfalls and benefits of Greek houses. You should be concerned about rushing a house too early in your first year. You should ask about non-Greek social opportunities on and near campus, and about the overall percentage of students affiliated with a house. You should look for student life alternatives to Greeks, such as social clusters built around college residence halls, as have been instituted in various forms at places like Bowdoin and Colby Colleges.
Look carefully at systems that might not be Greek in name, but which in many respects are similar, such as the Eating Clubs at Princeton. Think about how a fraternity or sorority could help make college life friendlier for you and provide a niche at a big university such as the University of Michigan. But think also about how you will feel if you enroll at Michigan and are not offered a bid by a house. Would you still want to be there, and could you deal with the social outcomes of being non-affiliated?
Is Greek life right for you?
There is no absolute right or wrong when it comes to fraternities and sororities; we encourage you to ask good questions and make as informed a choice as possible in building your college list and deciding whether you will join a house when you enroll in college.
By Howard and Matthew Greene, hosts of two PBS college-planning programs and authors of the Greenes' Guides to Educational Planning series and other books.