After reading The Atlantic magazine’s March cover story about the many problems with fraternities, one could easily conclude that the best advice one can give an enrolling college freshman is to stay as far away from them as possible.
But newly published research suggests otherwise. It finds joining a Greek organization produces mixed results for men, and largely positive ones for women.
“Greek membership is found to increase the desire to pursue a graduate degree, and increase the likelihood of graduating on time,” report P. Wesley Routon of Middle Tennessee State University and Jay Walker of Niagara University. They find belonging to a sorority has no significant effect on the grade point averages of women, while membership in a fraternity lowers the GPAs of men “only very slightly.”
"Four-year graduation rates are notably higher for Greek members, with male and female members being 4.8 and 4.7 percentage points more likely to do so, respectively (compared to non-members)."
Their study, just published in the Journal of Behavioral and Experimental Economics, is based on a survey of more than 103,000 students at 463 institutions of higher learning in the U.S. More than 19 percent of them reported they had joined a Greek organization.
The researchers looked at responses to surveys the students filled out in their freshmen and again in their senior years. Using this method, “Greek members are only compared to very similar students who did not join a Greek organization,” they write.
The researchers point to “widespread stereotypes that members of these organizations ... are more prone to partying than studying.” Their data suggests this image, cemented by such films as Animal House, does have some basis in fact.
“Membership in a Greek organization is found to increase the frequency of smoking cigarettes, drinking beer, drinking wine or liquor, and hours per week partying during the senior year,” they write. While they found only small increases in smoking, they found fraternity and sorority members drink much more frequently than non-members.
However, all that imbibing did not appear to hurt the students academically much, if at all. “Four-year graduation rates are notably higher for Greek members, with male and female members being 4.8 and 4.7 percentage points more likely to do so, respectively (compared to non-members),” the researchers write. “The increased likelihoods of graduating on time may stem from Greek members having an added incentive to stay enrolled and keep a minimum GPA, so that they can continue to belong to the organization.”
While the grade point averages of male Greeks are “slightly lower than their non-Greek counterparts,” the overall academic effect of Greek membership on women "appears to be positive,” the researchers write. “These students study as often, make similar grades, and score similarly on graduate-school admission test as non-Greeks.”
Both men and women in Greek organizations tend to be less religious than other students. However, they are “five to seven percentage points more likely to be involved in student government,” the researchers report, “and also participate in more volunteer activities.”
Routon and Walker conclude that the decision to join a Greek organization should be based on an individual student’s wants, needs, and concerns. If being around alcohol is problematic, these houses are probably best avoided.
But if a student needs a push to complete his or her courses and graduate on schedule, a fraternity or sorority may provide a positive environment—the occasional toga party notwithstanding.