Many students are predisposed either for or against not only joining a Greek organization, but even attending a college at which Greeks have a presence. Many stereotypes and mythologies abound, most having to do with the "Animal House" image of frats or the "Southern Belle" reputation of sororities.
Some of you might be sure that you want to join a house in order to find social bonding, parties, post-college networking opportunities, and a nice campus housing option. Others might be certain that Greeks are all bad and don't want to go near a campus that sponsors them.
We aren't going to solve the debate over whether fraternities and sororities are good or bad. Both of us were members of fraternities and had very good experiences with them in a traditional campus setting where Greek houses continue to play an important, but not overbearing role. Instead, let us lay out some ways to look at Greek systems so that you can evaluate them for yourself and decide what, if any, role they will play in your college life.
Stereotypes about Greek life
First of all, most stereotypes are only partially true. Yes, Greek houses (and fraternities in particular) are often a place for big-time partying on campuses that have at least moderately sized systems. That's where a lot of the drinking takes place, where bands play, and where pre- and post-game parties happen.
However, most Greek organizations also contribute to college life in other ways. They host academic speakers, provide educational and counseling services, engage in an enormous amount of community service, raise money for local and national causes, and enroll many campus leaders and athletes as members.
We believe that partying, drinking, and drugs are present on most campuses, Greek or not. Substance abuse and an anti-intellectual or sexist culture are not caused by Greeks, though in some cases these issues can be exacerbated by them. When considering the role of fraternities and sororities on campus — and whether to join one — you should talk with current students about the reputation and culture of the Greek houses at that college.
Greek influence on college life
There are a few factors that determine the relevance and influence of Greeks on any campus. One is the overall percentage of students that join. Twenty to thirty percent of the student body represents a moderate level of Greek involvement. Fifty percent is a much more dominant and significant proportion.
Another issue is the size of the college's student body overall. In a small college of 2,000 students, a 40-percent Greek population makes for a very strong impact on student life and campus culture. There will likely be very few other social outlets on campus beyond Greek life. At a university of 20,000 students, 40-percent Greek participation still leaves 12,000 individuals who are not affiliated with a fraternity or sorority.
A related factor is the location of the campus. A college or university in the city, whatever its size, will allow students many more social opportunities than an institution located in a small town or rural area. Those urban social and cultural choices will mitigate the influence of any Greek system.
Greek life and rush
The timing of fraternity and sorority rush (when students campaign to join a house) can strongly affect the influence of the system on residential and social life. We are still amazed by the many colleges and universities that allow rush during freshman fall, or even before classes start.
Greek houses are exclusive by nature, even though some colleges have houses that maintain open enrollment or guarantee that all students who rush will be offered at least one bid. One of the best ways for colleges to maintain a Greek presence but decrease their influence is to move rush back to freshman spring or even sophomore year. Sophomore rush can lead to a less socially pressured and exclusive freshman year, a more well-considered rush, and a smaller overall percentage of affiliated students.
Campus housing and Greek life
For those of you leaning toward joining, you should note that some colleges have only non-residential Greek organizations. Either the college banned residential houses, or the houses developed at a later stage and did not play a strong role historically in providing campus housing. In any case, non-residential houses tend to have less of a social impact on student life because members continue to live in college housing, especially during their first two years of college.
Sometimes, depending on college housing policies and the school's location, members might then join with a few friends to rent an off-campus apartment. However, this is not the same as 30–50 students or more living together in an exclusive fraternity or sorority house in the central part of campus.
You make the decision about your college life
Ultimately, only you can decide if a fraternity or sorority is right for you. The best opinion, however, is an informed opinion. Before you begin to lean in one direction or the other, look into what the Greek system is like at the schools you are considering. From there, you can figure out if you want to rush…or rush in the other direction.
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.