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Parent Guide to Greek Life

Updated on March 5, 2016

"Dad, I need $100 for my sorority," demanded my daughter. "OK," I replied wondering what a sorority was.

Images from very bad comedy movies began to appear in my mind. Most involved excessive drinking and scantily clad girls. My heart sank. I had to give her the benefit of the doubt and I didn't want to jump to conclusions, so I began to uncover the true story of college sororities and fraternities. Here is what I found.

What Are College Fraternities and Sororities?

My search started with my daughter's school's website. In the parents section, I learned that there were several dozen different sororities and fraternities. Someone had put a lot of effort into explaining that none of my concerns were justified.

A much shorter list of groups had been banned by the school as well as their respective national organizations. Apparently, incidents of hazing are high in those groups. Unlike approved groups, they are not allowed on campus and cannot use school facilities. Students are prohibited from joining them and can be punished if they do.

With that out of the way, I continued to try to figure out what benefits my money would provide for my daughter. Before we do that, let us go back and take a quick look at their history and how they came to be.

A Little History

The sorority/fraternity phenomenon is largely a US phenomenon although other countries have similar organizations.

The first Greek-letter society is believed to be Phi Beta Kappa which was founded in 1776 at the College of William and Mary in Virginia in response to the founder's rejection by two Latin-letter fraternities founded in 1750 and 1773. The purpose of these original societies is unknown. Their activities seem to have been surrounded by secrecy. Even their motto was secret. All we know are the first letters FHC and PDA. They may have been modeled on the secret societies of the Freemasons

Today, most of these original secret societies have morphed into fraternities (from the Latin "frater" for brother) and sororities (from the Latin "soror" for sister). Together, they are referred to as Greek letter organizations. They are mostly social in nature.


The root of my concerns giving rise to this article have to do with especially one aspect of controversies surrounding these fraternities and sororities namely the reputed excesses such as drinking, sex and hazing.

Academic achievement

Studies have shown that membership seems to have a negative impact on the students' academic achievements especially for the first year. Some schools prohibit freshmen from joing fraternities and sororities.

One study suggests a positive impact on especially men's self-esteem. Other studies indicate that graduation rates among Greek students are higher than among students at large.


Hazing is a rite of initiation and usually takes the form of public humiliation or punishment through infliction of pain or exhaustion. Occasionally, hazing rituals have led to severe injury, even death. It is illegal in most states.


Because of the often secret nature, it is difficult to ascertain exactly what they are about except when their activities like hazing gone wrong spill over into the public space.

Elitism and Exclusion

In our culture, it is usually frowned upon when access to something is restricted based on race, religion, gender, nationality and the like.


Because of these controversies and parents' concerns about them, most colleges now have some form of restrictions or controls in place to govern Greek life on their campuses. Organizations and students found in violation may be banned while compliant organizations have access to college facilities.

Today, most organizations are national with local chapters providing for significant self-regulation in cooperation with the various colleges and universities.

Foundational Principles

The purpose of each organization varies, but generally there are four principles:

  1. Scholarship
  2. Community Service
  3. Campus Involvement
  4. Sisterhood/brotherhood


Today, most Greek letter societies are similar to honor societies. Because the activities may be somewhat time consuming, some colleges restrict membership to students with a certain level of academic achievement. For the same reason, there may also be restrictions on when new students can join. See the studies suggesting that academic achievement suffers during the early years, but that graduation rates increase mentioned above.

Community Service

Many chapters raise significant funds for various charitable causes through their activities.

Campus Involvement

Local chapters organize a number of sporting or cultural events to foster community and enhance the social aspect of college life. It is a forum for students to develop leadership skills.


Membership encourages a culture of support and loyalty. Life-long friendships are forged for networking opportunities extending beyond graduation.


Today, the excess stereo type is mostly a thing of the past. Yes, there is usually at least one example of hazing or excessive drinking making the headlines and national news every year. The thousands of benevolent and philanthropic activities generally remain unreported even though they are the real purpose of Greek life.

This little study has largely put my mind at ease regarding Greek life and I hope my daughter as well as your sons or daughters will all go on to achieve greatness in our society. Meanwhile I'll still enjoy silly college comedy classics. I hope you will, too.

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