What to Ask Before Joining Greek Life

Maura Hohman

College-bound seniors might feel relieved after settling on where they'll be going come fall, but the big decisions are far from over. And that includes deciding whether joining a fraternity or sorority is the right move.

"Going Greek" entails more than an intense social life -- including responsibilities to the chapter and often to the community, and money out of pocket. Being active in the Greek system is supposed to be "about developing yourself as a total person," says Peter Smithhisler, president and CEO of the North-American Interfraternity Conference.

Explore the [benefits and drawbacks of Greek life.]

Meantime, the hard-partying lifestyle has been under attack for some time. "There have been systemic changes to the entire Greek system within the last 20 to 30 years," says Alan DeSantis, a professor of communication at the University of Kentucky and author of "Inside Greek U.: Fraternities, Sororities, and the Pursuit of Pleasure, Power, and Prestige."

Especially at big state institutions, for example, "zero-tolerance policies on hazing have eliminated public humiliation in places like the quad and cafeteria," he says. And many colleges have implemented stricter alcohol policies.

Here are some questions to think about as you make your decision.

-- Why join? Many students join a house to make a large community feel smaller. "Coming into your own is a hard process," says Aubrey Frazier, assistant director of fraternity and sorority life at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. "Connecting to a fraternity or sorority can help."

Others are attracted to the shot at leadership positions, philanthropic opportunities and strong alumni support. Students interested exclusively in parties might be surprised to find out that statistics show Greek students tend to graduate at a higher rate than average.

-- What percentage of students participate? Smaller schools tend to have a higher percentage of students in fraternities and sororities, Frazier says. Similarly, on rural campuses without access to a vibrant off-campus community, notes Matthew Hughey, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut who's researched the Greek system, it's often the case that "fraternity and sorority houses are where people go."

A fulfilling experience without Greek life relies on finding other ways to meet like-minded people, and big schools typically have hundreds of options, as well as the chance to rally around athletics. At Washington and Lee University, a small Virginia school, more than 75 percent of students join, compared with less than 20 percent at the University of Texas--Austin.

Learn about [joining a fraternity or sorority as an international student.]

-- What's the time commitment? As is true with most pursuits, faculty advisers say you get out what you put in. Becoming an officer or taking an active role in social and philanthropic events, for example, is apt to offer rewards in the form of experiences that just doing the bare minimum won't.

Frazier says to expect a weekly chapter meeting at the very least; skipping often leads to fines. Most organizations also plan and host one or two social events a month, from cocktail parties to crawfish boils, and at least one community service event per semester.

Frank Baptista, a 2015 grad of American University in Washington who served as president of his fraternity, dedicated about 15 hours a week to Sigma Chi activities, which included chairing the chapter's Derby Days competition for cancer research. He estimates that members without leadership roles devote four to five hours a week.

What will the cost be? Dues can range from $20 to $200 or more a month. Members living in chapter housing will also pay for room and board.

Generally, dues follow a monthly schedule and cover social events, insurance, dues to the national or international chapter and operational costs, such as recruitment and upkeep of community spaces. Scholarships are often available, and some chapters have payment plans.

How many members are in the chapter? Big chapters tend to have money and can easily support campuswide events, and they boast big alumni networks. But the sense of brotherhood or sisterhood can suffer when members can't know everyone, and it can be tough to gain a leadership role.

In addition to considering the personality of a chapter, Myrna Hernandez, assistant dean of students for campus living and community development at DePauw University in Indiana, suggests that students think about whether they're looking for the greatest number of connections or the deepest connections.

What's chapter policy on other activities? Greek students tend to be hyperinvolved in campus life, since a big part of the system's focus is on giving back to the community. Greek-affiliated students occupy most student leadership positions at Rollins, for example, Frazier says.

Often, in fact, joining other groups is not only recommended but required by the national organization.

Figure out [how to manage your time in college.]

Does the chapter have a house? Will you be expected to live there? Students at some universities hold chapter meetings in classrooms, whereas members at other schools eat, sleep, study and socialize in their fraternity or sorority house. Whenever she wanted "to crash there between classes or hang out or eat lunch," the Alpha Xi Delta house was accessible and welcoming, says Stephanie Riley, a 2015 grad of California State University--Northridge.

Some Greek organizations do require students to live in the house for a time, regardless of whether it's more economical than dorms or off-campus apartments.

Sorority houses typically don't host parties with alcohol, so living there isn't unlike the dorm experience, says Julie Johnson, Panhellenics Committee chair man of the National Panhellenic Conference of sororities. Anyone choosing a frat will want to know both whether he'll have to live in the house and what the lifestyle would entail.

Is hazing an issue? Most campuses now ban the hazing of new pledges, as do all members of the North-American Interfraternity Conference and the National Panhellenic Conference.

"There's definitely been a concerted effort on behalf of fraternities to root out hazing," says Moe Stephens, director of Greek life and leadership at the University of Puget Sound in Washington state. But it's still "a touchy subject that everyone needs to keep talking about."

This story is excerpted from the U.S. News "Best Colleges 2016" guidebook, which features in-depth articles, rankings and data.