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There are plenty of reasons to be critical of college fraternities and sororities. Hazing deaths happen too often. Rape and sexual assaults are even more common. Members of these exclusionary clubs are disproportionately white and wealthy. Instances of blatant racist and homophobic behavior are well documented. Amid the Black Lives Matter movement of 2020, calls to Abolish Greek Life gathered momentum.
Against this backdrop, fraternity and sorority advocates are marshalling evidence that their organizations provide valuable benefits to their members and the universities they attend. A new Gallup poll, commissioned by two advocacy organizations, finds that fraternity and sorority members were more likely to say they formed relationships with mentors and professors, were extremely active in extracurricular activities and worked in internships where they could apply what they were learning in their college classes.
More than half of fraternity and sorority alumni said they had a job immediately after or within two months of graduating college compared with only 36 percent of unaffiliated college graduates. Greek alumni said they felt more engaged in their current jobs and more satisfied with their lives, too.
Fraternity and sorority members look back on their undergraduate years more fondly. Almost two thirds would recommend their university to others compared with less than half of unaffiliated alumni. A whopping 54 percent said they had donated to their alma mater in the past year compared with only 10 percent of unaffiliated alumni.
Gallup characterized the differences in perceptions between fraternity and sorority alumni and their unaffiliated peers as large and consistent with the positive findings of an earlier Gallup poll of college graduates in 2014, also funded by Greek advocacy groups. “These are very, very strong results,” said Julie Ray, a senior consultant at Gallup. “These alumni probably had pretty darn good experiences as undergrads and they are saying they had success after graduation.”
There are an estimated 750,000 fraternity and sorority members in college and more than nine million alumni in the United States. Membership ranges from less than 5 percent on some campuses to more than 50 percent on others. Greek life is especially popular in the South.
In the poll, Gallup administered online surveys to 10,000 adults across the country who graduated college with a bachelor’s degree in the past 15 years. About 3,000 of them said they had been members of a fraternity or a sorority in college and Gallup’s data analysts compared the responses of alumni who participated in Greek life with those who didn’t. The surveys were conducted in January 2021 and the report is slated to be released on July 20, 2021.
Leaders of the advocacy organizations who funded the poll, the North-American Interfraternity Conference and the National Panhellenic Conference, said the results are evidence that their chapters are good at developing people skills and provide support networks to help students overcome frustrations and disappointments.
There’s no way to know if the fraternities and sororities can be credited with producing any of these better outcomes. Gallup didn’t measure whether students’ academic performance or social skills improved during their college years. Fraternities and sororities charge high membership and residential fees and tend to select wealthier students with higher grades to start with. It’s also likely that those who choose to participate in Greek life may be more optimistic by nature, more outgoing and more likely to take advantage of networking opportunities during college and beyond. The kinds of students who choose to participate in Greek life may have thrived in college and afterward even without a fraternity or a sorority.
Gallup’s data analysts tried to make apples-to-apples comparisons by controlling for some differences, such as demographics, income, parents’ education and student loans. “We put that into our model, and we still saw these benefits for well-being, experiential learning and all these different things,” said Ray.
Previous research on the benefits of being a member of a fraternity or sorority has been mixed. Three well-designed and peer-reviewed studies at private and public universities in North Carolina, Ohio and the Northeast found that membership in a fraternity or sorority harmed academic performance and led to lower grades, particularly during the rushing and pledging seasons. One of these studies, however, found that fraternity alumni subsequently earned higher incomes after college. But the Ohio study found no future income boost.
Research funded by fraternity and sorority advocacy groups has been more positive. These studies point to higher graduation rates, higher rates of re-enrollment from semester to semester and more involvement in student life on campuses. A March 2020 analysis of national survey data by a researcher at the University of Indiana found that fraternity and sorority members were significantly more engaged in college life than non-members, reported greater gains in learning, and were more satisfied with their college experiences. But fraternity and sorority members also reported having lower grades, and the author of the study, Gary Pike, said in an email interview that it was also possible that personality characteristics of the students who join fraternities and sororities could be the reason they are more engaged at college.
“I believe the results are important because they call into question some of the conventional wisdom about fraternity/sorority membership,” said Pike via email. “However, the final word has yet to be written. Much more research needs to be done.”
Fraternity and sorority advocates also point out that their members have higher levels of positive mental health along with lower rates of depression, according to an analysis of 2018-19 survey data conducted by the Postsecondary Education Research Center at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Diagnoses of anxiety, however, were higher among fraternity and sorority members, as was use of therapy and counseling.
A separate and large body of research on college completion points to the importance of student engagement on campus in helping more students stay in college and graduate. The Gallup polls on Greek alumni and advocacy-funded research, even with their imperfections, confirm that it’s beneficial for students to participate in campus activities and form strong bonds with classmates and faculty members.
It’s possible that participation in other activities — from sports teams and student government to college newspapers and racial and ethnic affinity groups — could produce identical college and long-term benefits without the short-term hit to grades and awful behavior that Greek life seems to perpetuate. The question for college students who are attracted to fraternities and sororities is whether they would seek out and enjoy these alternatives as much. And the question for university administrators is whether their alumni would still donate as much money.
This story about Greek life research was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.