How Greek Membership Shapes Our Students’ Experience

Listening to some faculty talk, you’d think that fraternities and sororities at Augustana are a deadly concoction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Mardi Gras, Las Vegas, and Carnival, whipped up in a blender and chugged through a fire hose from a second story beer bong.   Yet, we all know of greek organizations – at Augustana and elsewhere – that make important contributions to the local community and the development of their members.  Thankfully, we don’t have to settle for dueling anecdotes.  We have plenty of data on students in Augustana’s greek organizations that allow us to test this clash of narratives.  So, since I’m on a bit of a mythbuster’s kick lately . . . let’s see what we can find out.

When the entering class of 2008 arrived at Augustana, little did they know that they would be studied like no class before.  They provided data three times as a part of the Wabash National Study (beginning of freshman year, end of freshman year, and end of senior year).  They were also the first class to complete the new senior survey in the spring of 2012.

From the data gathered at the end of the freshmen year (spring, 2009), we found one set of troubling results among first year greek members.  Freshmen who joined greek organizations reported larger increases than their independent (non-greek member) peers on three items during the first year.

  • The number of times in a week that they drank alcohol
  • The number of times in a week that they had five or more alcoholic drinks
  • The number of days in the week that they felt sleep deprived

In addition, greek members, on average, earned a lower spring GPA – even after accounting for students’ incoming ACT score and academic motivation.  Unsurprisingly, being male exacerbated each of these differences, while being female minimized them.  Interestingly, despite these potentially negative effects, greek membership did not decrease the likelihood of retention, probably because students don’t join greek organizations until the spring term, and the primary driver of persistence or withdrawal – academic performance – has already culled the herd during the previous winter and fall terms.

Fast-forward to the end of the senior year.  At this point, what initially seemed a more negative picture becomes more complicated.  While greek members’ average GPA still trail that of non-greek members, the gap noted in the spring of the first year has shrunk by about 25%.  Again, being female mitigates further, likely making the difference in average GPA between female greek and non-greek members insignificant.

However, in numerous cases greek students’ scores on several senior survey items suggests that this experience provided some important benefits.  On average, greek members’ responded more positively (defined by differences that proved statistically significant) to these statements:

  • My co-curricular experiences provided numerous opportunities to interact with students who differed from me in race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, or social/political values.
  • My co-curricular involvement helped me build a network of healthy lasting friendships.
  • My co-curricular involvement helped me develop a better understanding of my leadership skills.
  • I felt a strong sense of belonging on campus.
  • The college emphasized an atmosphere of ethnic and cross-cultural understanding.
  • Augustana faculty and staff welcomed student input on institutional policy and handbook decisions.
  • If you could relieve your college decision would you choose Augustana again?

Taken together, these findings spell out much of the good and the bad of greek life.  On one hand, during the first year it appears that some behaviors emerge among greeks that could – and sometimes do – negatively impact students’ success.  On the other hand, by the time this group of students graduates, at least one of those deficits has been legitimately reduced, and the educational efforts of the college – particularly on the co-curricular side – appear to have produced a series of benefits that match our own educational intentions.

Of course, one important question – and a longstanding one – is how we might eliminate the bad without losing the good.  Our student affairs staff continually works to counter the impact of pledging on student success, even in the face of stiff pushback from many greek members and alumni.  Might there be a role for faculty to play in this endeavor?  Probably.  Does that role include railing against a stereotype of greeks that actually perpetuates a stereotype of faculty among students and, in so doing undermines the very trust necessary to influence students’ behavior outside of class?  Probably not.

But the question that jumps out at me is slightly different.  While it’s great to see graduating seniors from greek organizations respond so positively to all of these questions, should we actually be celebrating this?  What is it about NOT belonging to greek organizations that produces systematically lower scores on so many important markers of the college experience we are trying to deliver?  For example, I’m not comfortable with finding that the greek members’ sense of belonging on campus score was more than half a point higher than non-greek members (4.26 vs. 3.71); not because I begrudge greek organizations, but because I’m not sure I see a compelling reason for greek membership on our campus to produce such a stark difference.

It’s easy to point to anecdotes of the college experience at its best; and we have many wonderful tales of students – greek and non-greek – who have changed fundamentally during their four years at Augustana.  But as I look at these findings, my concern tends toward the students who experience less than our best.  I’d be curious to figure out what we might do to minimize, or even eliminate, the statistically significant differences between greek and non-greek members across all of these senior survey experience questions.

Answers?  You wanted answers?  Oh, grasshopper . . .

Have a great Homecoming week – and let’s not leave anyone on the outside looking in.

Make it a good day,




One thought on “How Greek Membership Shapes Our Students’ Experience

  1. I thought of this blog post upon seeing a recent news story about some unfortunate antics at a fraternity in Tennessee (link below). I work at a Jesuit institution and there is no greek life. Yes, students have parties, but much of students’ sense of belonging and and leadership development comes from elsewhere. For example, there’s a strong ethic around community service and service trips, as well as enthusiasm around reflective retreats that are geared at personal and spiritual growth. Many of these events encourage students who might not otherwise know each other to mix and to create lifelong bonds. Retreats that incorporate faculty encourage them to share their life stories around making difficult life decisions, including those involving vocation.

    So I keep wondering what might transfer. Instead of wondering how to eliminate the bad, I wonder what about this strong sense of belonging might be shared with other students, and I wonder if the values within each organization might be shifted toward things like “using the privilege of one’s college education to better the lives of others.”

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