In my first year at the University, I took a course that discussed — among other things — the creation and maintenance of ethical spaces at the University. For our final project, my group chose to showcase the inherent inequality found all across Grounds in a short presentation, ranging from dilemmas posed by merit-based versus need-based financial aid to the University’s Counseling and Psychological Services.
One topic for the assignment was fraternities and sororities. Greek life is huge at the University — approximately 35 percent of undergraduate students are members of a fraternity or sorority. One could argue for the opportunities these groups provide for networking and the formation of lifelong friendships and unforgettable memories. To be sure, the existence of fraternities and sororities allows for leadership and service experience, and it cultivates a sense of community — a home away from home, so to speak. And that is a thing to be celebrated, right?
But the more research I did — and the more people I spoke with — the harder it became to deny the darkness that lingers beneath all the positives. Fraternities and sororities have suffered from a myriad of issues throughout their history — dangerous hazing rituals resulting in deaths and suicide, repeated instances of racial ignorance and racism and the prevalence of rape culture.
That is not to say that all fraternities and sororities are reflective of backwards ideas regarding race, sex and gender. My specific interest was not in the explicit negatives, but rather in the culture of economic stratification — the condition where social classes are separated, or stratified, along economic lines — perpetuated by these organizations. Economic stratification on college campuses inherently puts lower-income students in an unfavorable position because it excludes them from the assets that higher-income students have easy access to, maintaining a cycle of economic inequality. And that, to me, is perhaps the greatest sin of all — the elitism of Greek life.
The Inter-Fraternity Council states that membership dues vary between $500 and $1,500 each semester — but some groups have higher costs, and this is just what is paid upfront. The $500-to-$1,500 price range neglects any merchandise a member of a fraternity or sorority might be expected to buy, social events, gifts exchanged between bigs and littles and other hidden charges.
Simply put, Greek life is expensive. Experts estimate that fees can reach as high as $3,000 a semester. University fraternities and sororities do offer scholarship opportunities — but it is questionable how helpful these scholarships really are in offsetting costs. Even if they are plentiful, there is no denying that there still exists a high barrier to entry for lower-income students.
Many of my friends rushed during my first year — some were accepted into sororities and fraternities and some were not, but all of them had wildly different opinions on the rush process. By design, it is a difficult process, but also a highly rewarding one. Most of their accounts did share one common theme, however — the indirect probing for wealth and financial status. I highly doubt any of it was intentionally done, but, in my mind, it just goes to show the extent to which elitism is structurally embedded into Greek life.
My intrigue only intensified during the discussion my class had about Greek life. The question posed was simple — are fraternities and sororities unethical spaces if it is true that they encourage economic stratification? A large number of students in the class were opposed to the idea and argued that the high costs allowed them to spend less on other amenities. One girl mentioned that her fees went to paying for a chef at her sorority house, thus reducing costs for food.
But the discussion also unveiled many other anecdotal stories surrounding Greek life that caught me off guard. During that class, I heard stories about bag checks and dress checks, intended to judge the quality of individuals’ personal belongings. A classmate who was rushing admitted that she was advised by a friend who was in another sorority to mention the annual “for pleasure” vacations she took with her family at social gatherings and interviews.
Our nation and the institutions within it must address the systems in place that allow inequity to thrive. I think we can all agree on something — the University has to do better. The University is ranked in the bottom 15 percent for social mobility, so is it any surprise that the University struggles to address challenges that Greek life poses to certain students when so many of our most deeply ingrained establishments implicitly deny these very students the same experiences as higher-income ones?
I don’t have an expressly negative opinion of Greek life — I just firmly believe that we’ll have to be careful in how we approach this subject in the future. As an outsider, hearing from friends, classmates and others about their experiences will continue to shape my own outlook and ability to craft potential solutions to these organizations’ most persistent problems. I look forward to hearing how this conversation develops over time — the class discussion I had is likely only a taste of what’s to come.