One of the biggest decisions incoming college students face is whether to join a fraternity or sorority. And, if you’re a student who struggles with learning disabilities, mental health issues or misuse of alcohol or substances, the question about whether joining a fraternity or sorority can be even more complicated.
For example, if you’re a student who is prone to depression and isolation, would “going Greek” ensure a healthy network of friendships and connections, or would the pressure to fit in simply compound your anxiety? If you suffer from a learning disability, would you be able to get help with your schoolwork from your fraternity brothers, or would they make it even harder to concentrate?
At some colleges, the Greek system is enormously influential. Joining a fraternity or sorority can determine who you’re friends with for the next four years, where you live, who you date, and even your career after graduation. But not all fraternities and sororities fit a common stereotype, and the impact of Greek life varies from school to school.
Before making the leap, incoming freshman should consider both the benefits and disadvantages to membership.
First, the good news:
- Ease of making friends: Students who suffer from social anxiety or have difficulty connecting with and sustaining friendships may find that joining a fraternity or a sorority is a great way to bond with others and feel a crucial sense of acceptance and belonging.
- Leadership training: Every member of a fraternity or sorority is expected to do their part to keep the organization running. Whether they’re working their way up to chapter president or organizing charity fundraisers, members get direct responsibility for projects that teach discipline and follow-through. This can boost your self-esteem, and those accomplishments also look pretty good on a resume.
- Academic achievement:Numerous studies have found that college students in the Greek system do better academically and have higher graduation rates than the average college student. That’s not surprising when you consider that fraternities and sororities have built-in accountability systems: older “brothers” and “sisters” are responsible for tracking the academic progress of younger members. Most Greek organizations have minimum GPA requirements for members and offer support such as group study sessions to keep them on track.
- Networking:The benefits of Greek life go beyond the college years. Greek alumni organizations are powerful networking organizations, giving recent grads access to mentors in their chosen field. According to research by the Center for the Study of the College Fraternity at Indiana University, the vast majority of U.S. Presidents, senators and Fortune 500 executives were members of Greek organizations in college—proof that those college connections can pay off.
- Doing good: Philanthropy is a central tenant of almost every Greek organization, and on many campuses, individual fraternities and sororities are known for the fundraisers they organize each year. The impact of such charity work is impressive; the National Panhellenic Council, an umbrella organization that represents 26 national sororities on more than 670 campuses, estimates that its student and alumnae members raise more than $30 million a year for charity.
- Prime housing: Most Greek organizations require members to live in the chapter house at some point during college, and at some colleges, that housing is a considerable step up from the dormitories. This perk, obviously, varies from campus to campus.
Now, some potential pitfalls:
- Time Commitment: Greek life, if you are going to get the most out of it, is a serious commitment. Those students who have difficulty with time management, those with learning disabilities that require additional time for studies, or students who want to pursue other interests outside of Greek life should be cautious about the time needed to invest in a fraternity or sorority.
- Cost:College costs are already high, and good luck trying to find out exactly how much more you’ll pay to join a fraternity or sorority; most college websites are purposely vague on that subject. The few schools that do publicize such information—including the University of Alabama and Florida State University—estimate fees of $3,500 to $2,300 per semester (including some meals but not housing). The heaviest financial hit comes in the first year of membership, which includes initiation fees. While most fraternities and sororities do offer scholarships and financial aid, going Greek means paying more.
- Alcohol abuse:You don’t have to have seen Animal House to know that fraternities have become more associated with drinking games than brotherhood in popular culture. Greek organizations are intended to be social, which means frequent parties and tailgates and other opportunities for drinking to spin out-of-control. And if you’re a student who has experienced binge drinking, blackouts or other problems with alcohol or substances during high school, going Greek may lead to even worse consequences.
- Hazing:According to the National Study of Student Hazing, developed by professors Mary Madden and Elizabeth Allan at the University of Maine, more than half of college students who participate in clubs or organizations experience hazing. That figure was even higher (70 percent) for students who join a Greek-letter organization. Though colleges as a whole are making a serious effort to cut down on hazing—and most fraternities and sororities have explicit anti-having policies—students continue to be injured and even die from such abuse, and the negative mental health impact of hazing can last for years afterwards.
Ultimately, the decision to go Greek is a deeply personal one. But it’s one that will be easier to make if you’ve done your homework first.