On the Campus

Emerging Adulthood and Adolescent Life

How Fraternities and Sororities Impact Students (Or Do They?)

Drinking, academics, and social behavior under the microscope

Right around now is the start of the academic year at American universities. Among the traditional activities accompanying the start of school is fraternity/sorority rush, in which students who wish to join a Greek-letter organization attend functions to learn about and select from the different houses and the fraternities and sororities decide which students they would like to invite to become members.

Exact figures for the number of college students nationally involved in these organizations are hard to pin down. However, from perusing several documents on the Internet, I would estimate that roughly 1 million current students belong to fraternities and sororities, and that when alumni are counted in the total, the number may be as high as 9 million (examples of the statistics one can find are available here and here).

To let readers know where I'm coming from, I was never a member of a fraternity, but family members of mine have been in fraternities and sororities. From talking to them and numerous students of mine who have been in Greek-letter organizations, I feel I have at least a decent store of knowledge about them.

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A natural question for someone such as myself, who studies young-adult development and has a background in social psychology, is what impact does participation in a fraternity or sorority have on individuals' attitudes and behaviors, both in the short and long term. However, any time participants make their own decisions to partake in an activity, as opposed to being randomly assigned by an experimenter to participate or not participate, there is the issue of self-selection.

In other words, there may be something about people who join Greek-letter organizations -- extraversion, risk-taking, excitement-seeking, and so forth -- that sets them apart from non-joiners. Thus, when we (potentially) see attitudinal/behavioral differences years later between college alumni who did and did not participate in the fraternity/sorority systerm, those differences could reflect the pre-college personalities of the two groups and not the actual experience of being in a Greek organization. Hence, any research purporting to show effects of fraternity/sorority participation should be taken with caution.   

One of the most extensive examinations of sorority life is the 2004 book Pledged, in which author Alexandra Robbins blends information from member-informants, her own journalistic interviews and undercover observations, and social-science research to tell readers what goes on inside the houses of Greek Row and beyond.

At the conclusion of her book, Robbins reported having "deeply mixed feelings" about sororities. The two primary benefits claimed by many sorority members were the network of female friends and a sense of confidence. The community-service aspect of sororities also appears to carry forward beyond college for many members. (Sororities at my home school, Texas Tech University, require their students to participate in at least two extracurricular activities, according to this article in the school newspaper.)

As Robbins writes, however, "for every girl who emerges from a sorority with improved self-esteem, there are numerous others whose confidence has been crushed" (p. 320). Robbins lists several additional problem areas, such as an atmosphere of conformity, intolerance, and "constantly being judged;" a heavy reliance on men for social validation; and enormous time and financial commitments. In some sororities, members are officially required to attend a certain percentage of events and even when not technically required, many feel implicitly that they should attend sorority activities over important outside functions.  

For some people, memories from the Greek years appear to have a special significance, even influencing behavior decades later. In his book, Beer and Circus about three A's of university life (academics, athletics, and alcohol), Murray Sperber writes about fraternity alumni seeking a little cross-generational bonding with current members through sharing memories of alcohol mayhem. "The main storytellers are often alumni, and they frequently gather in their old fraternity houses to narrate the tales and, on occasion, to try to relive them" (p. 152).

The overwhelming majority of academic research on Greek life appears to be on heavy drinking and other substance use, with studies consistently showing that Greek-organization members drink more heavily than matched non-members (here and here). Again, though, the issue of self-selection is important to consider, and research suggests the correlation between Greek membership and drinking arises both from drinking-prone individuals selecting themselves into fraternities/sororities and from the Greek environment being conducive to drinking.

There is also research on fraternities/sororities and academics. Members of Greek-letter organizations achieve somewhat higher Grade Point Averages than unaffiliated students (fraternities and sororities can, of course, use academic qualifications in selecting members, thus boosting house GPA's, but the researchers statistically tried to take into account pre-college academic records of students).

Other research, looking at tests of cognitive abilities (e.g., writing, reasoning, critical thinking) showed fraternity/sorority members to considerably underperform their unaffiliated counterparts in the first year of college, but the fraternity/sorority deficit to shrink greatly in the second and third years. 

One recommendation made by both Robbins and academic researchers is that Greek-letter organizations consider deferred or rolling admissions so that, for example, students could join during spring instead of fall. Students who join fraternities/sororities in spring seem to do better academically, suggesting that they used their first fall semester to concentrate on academics and get settled into university life. Also, a more extended timeframe would allow, in Robbins's words, existing and prospective new members to "get to know each other naturally rather than through forced three-minute conversations" (p. 325). 

Hazing is, of course, an important issue regarding fraternities and sororities. I have not discussed it, as so much has been written elsewhere. Readers interested in suggested reforms are encouraged to consult Robbins's book Pledged. Also worth examining are Robbins's comments on the lack of racial-ethnic, socioeconomic, and general diversity in Greek-letter organizations.

Finally, the website Wikihow offers advice on "How to Rush a Fraternity" (which I think would also hold for sororities). The suggestions include what I think are some good, common sense tips, such as realizing in advance the commitment -- in terms of time, money, and just general devotion  -- that will be involved.

Alan Reifman, Ph.D., is a Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at Texas Tech University.

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