Most people in Greek-letter organizations are genuinely ashamed of the reckless drinking behavior displayed by fraternity and sorority members on TV. It gives the Greek system a bad reputation and overshadows the numerous benefits of Greek life. But the organizations can’t dispute the fact that drinking is common in fraternities and sororities.
“There’s no question that athletes and Greeks abuse alcohol more than anybody else,” Dr. Ron Binder, associate dean of student affairs at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford, told DrugRehab.com. “Greeks don’t like hearing that, but that’s just the fact.”
For decades, fraternities and sororities have been associated with high rates of binge drinking. The reason isn’t as clear as many people believe. Experts have wondered whether people who join fraternities or sororities drink more because of social situations, or if they were already more likely to drink before rushing.
A 2005 study published in the journal Addiction found that people who joined fraternities and sororities exhibited higher rates of alcohol use as high school seniors than people who didn’t join a Greek organization in college. The researchers also found evidence that Greek membership played a role in increased alcohol use during college.
“They looked at the drinking patterns of the general population and then tracked who joined fraternities and sororities,” said Binder, who is a member of Sigma Phi Epsilon. “It wasn’t overwhelmingly about who [Greeks] attract, but it was certainly more of who we attract than what we do.”
Most fraternities and sororities pride themselves on attracting members with the potential to succeed academically, philanthropically and professionally. They want to produce alumni who become leaders in the workforce and their respective communities. The groups don’t want to attract members who create bad publicity or stray from the organization’s mission.
“We need to be critical of ourselves,” Binder said. “We don’t want to set ourselves up so that if you drink at elevated levels you want to come and join us.”
The majority of surveys on fraternities and sororities have asked questions about alcohol use and binge drinking. Few studies have investigated trends in drug use, but a wealth of research shows that college is associated with increased drug use among the entire student population.
Dr. Lynda Wiley, the executive director of the Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisors, told DrugRehab.com that drug use in the Greek system tends to be reflective of drug use on the entire campus.
“Look at geography, size of the institution and the size of the student population,” said Wiley, who has more than 20 years of experience working with Greek members and their advisors. “Fraternities and sororities are a microcosm of what is happening on the broader campus front.”
A handful of studies have found an association between fraternity or sorority membership and increased use of cigarettes, marijuana, Ecstasy and other drugs. But the association isn’t as strong as the one researchers have identified between Greek membership and high rates of binge drinking.
“For campuses that are very large schools that tend to have more wealth, they tend to see more designer drugs,” said Binder, who has advised Greek organizations at five universities during a 30-year career in student affairs. “For schools that are relatively less affluent, the drug beyond alcohol is usually marijuana.”
Many people are attracted to fraternities and sororities because of glamour, camaraderie and revelry. Prestigious Greek houses on many college campuses dwarf the dorms and residence halls that house non-Greeks.
Publicly, the groups promote networking, leadership, service and academic opportunities. But access to socials and house parties is also a popular topic of conversation behind closed doors. Some organizations brag about the number of kegs at their tailgate events, but others want new members who are interested in more than partying.
In truth, Greek life is what each member makes of it. Academic, service and leadership opportunities are available to members who pursue them. Some members do the bare minimum as long as they’re allowed to the party. Regardless of which aspect of Greek life each member pursues, almost all members share one long-lasting benefit.
“We make lifelong friendships,” Binder said. “No one else does that on the college campus to the level that fraternities and sororities do. Greeks are our most engaged alums because they had a great experience as an undergraduate and because they’ve got that connection.”
Membership in a Greek organization is demanding. Fraternity and sorority members attend mandatory events throughout the week. They also have to maintain a certain GPA, raise philanthropy money and perform community service.
Drinking is common, but it doesn’t pervade all activities. The majority of events forbid alcohol, and members can be fined or suspended if they show up intoxicated.
“If things are working the way that they’re supposed to, this experience is designed to make you a better person,” Wiley said. “It’s designed to make you a better college student and to help you navigate college and beyond with that support network.”
Of course, some members pregame before activities that are supposed to be dry. And after events, some members head back to the house to drink. Alcohol is banned from most sorority houses, but some sorority members sneak alcohol into their rooms.
Opportunities to drink seem abundant, but few Greeks pressure their peers to drink before a sober activity. The weekends are generally the only times binge drinking is common during an average week.
Partying can seem like the top priority of Greek organizations at times, but getting drunk isn’t a requirement for membership. Fraternities and sororities won’t kick members out for turning down a shot or missing a party. Learning to consume alcohol responsibly and knowing when to say no is a part of most people’s college experience.
“College in general poses a variety of situations where students have to make choices about what behaviors they’re going to engage in and who they’re going to associate with,” Wiley said.
But fraternity and sorority members likely have to choose between drinking and staying sober more often than other college students.
Members also have to balance busy schedules. Prioritizing responsibilities is a challenge for all college students, and fraternity or sorority members who try to attend every party can quickly fall behind academically.
“If a student has a problem self-monitoring and managing their time, I would say they need to think long and hard about making any major commitment, including joining a fraternity or sorority,” Wiley said. “Students need to be self-aware enough to make sure they can handle their commitments.”
Fraternities and sororities aren’t for everyone. Individuals who know they have a problem saying no to peers, managing time or focusing on academics may want to avoid joining a Greek organization. Or they may want wait to join until their sophomore year, when they have more experience managing responsibilities.
The best way to find a fraternity or sorority that’s right for you is to do your homework. Don’t wait until rush or recruitment week to start getting to know members.
Many sorority members are forbidden from talking to potential new members outside of official recruitment events, but you should still try to learn as much as you can about the groups you’re interested in.
“Now more than ever, there is information out there that students can seek to find out what the experience is going to be like,” Wiley said. “Most offices of fraternity and sorority life publish academic reports. Depending on the campus, they’ll also include where there have been rule violations. If not, call the office and ask questions.”
Starting conversations with active members is the best way to get to know a fraternity or sorority, but other members of the campus community can describe each group’s reputation.
“Students should talk to their peers,” Binder said. “They can ask about the perception of the group on campus, realizing that it may be fair or unfair. A lot of orientation leaders tend to be fraternity or sorority members or students that are very involved on campus. They’re a great student resource who should be able to give a good picture.”
Binder and Wiley said that the key to choosing a good chapter is finding a group that shares your interests. Students interested in community service should look for a fraternity or sorority with a lot of community service events on the calendar. Students who have heavy course loads should choose a group that has active study groups and a high GPA requirement.
“Look at the quality of the men or women in the chapter,” Binder said. “A student looking to join a fraternity or sorority needs to ask some questions about how they socialize, where they socialize and under what conditions.”
If students are looking for fraternities or sororities that are only interested in drinking or partying, those groups are usually easy to find. Their reputations are likely well known across campus. They’re usually on probation for alcohol violations or have a history of social restrictions imposed by the college or national fraternity.
“The good news is most fraternities and sororities do the right things,” Binder said. “Like anything, a certain percentage are going to do the wrong thing. We tend to hear more about the negatives than the positives. That’s life. You can’t do anything about it.”
Fraternities and sororities are large organizations. At small schools, they may comprise dozens of members. At large schools, most Greek groups have more than 100 active members. With that many college students in one group, there are bound to be members who make mistakes.
“When students engage in risky practices, it’s usually led by a small group of people that are determined to do something that’s not good,” Binder said. “When someone speaks up, we find that the silent majority has said, ‘No, we’re not going to engage in that behavior. We think that’s inappropriate.’ The problem is they don’t know they’re in the majority.”
Binder said fraternity or sorority members who think other members are drinking too much should find someone who shares their views and try to change the culture.
“That’s not a difficult thing to do, but it does take some courage on the part of the student,” Binder said. “What we find is when a student speaks up about alcohol abuse or hazing, sometimes they’re met with a chorus of people saying they felt the same way.”
He said that illicit drug use is rarely widespread in fraternities and sororities. Unlike alcohol use in Greek life, drugs use does not occur on a regular basis.
“When we have chapters who get in trouble for drug use, we usually find that it’s a small group of people that are doing it,” Binder said. “The larger group of people doesn’t like it.”
Everyone considering going Greek has to consider whether Greek life is right for them. Joining a fraternity or sorority has a lot of advantages. A 2014 Gallup survey of more than 30,000 college graduates found that members of Greek organizations were more likely than graduates who didn’t join a fraternity or sorority during college to be engaged at work.
The Greek graduates were also more likely to be thriving financially, socially and physically, according to the survey. They felt more purpose and more community well-being than other college graduates. The survey’s findings were true even after accounting for differences in gender, race and socio-economic background.
“Of all the people later on in life who were most satisfied with their lives, people from fraternities or sororities were at the top of the list,” Binder said. “Whatever we’re doing, either by attraction or by what we do during that undergraduate experience, we have people who do more service and are generally more satisfied in life.”
Despite the benefits, fraternities and sororities may not be the right choice for all students. Students with a history of problems with alcohol or other drugs will likely be exposed to high-risk situations during the fraternity or sorority experience.
Individuals who have multiple time commitments, such as full-time jobs, child care duties or obligations to other organizations, may struggle to balance academics and Greek responsibilities. Although many organizations work with members to meet financial commitments, going Greek can be a financial burden on some individuals.
Students may thrive outside the Greek system by participating in other extracurricular activities or by joining other student organizations. Membership in any student organization is associated with higher academic performance, according to multiple studies. Participation in student organizations may also increase retention and graduation rates.
Some students make a choice to stay sober. They may avoid alcohol and other drugs for health or personal reasons, or they may dislike the feeling of being impaired. These students comprise a small portion of fraternity and sorority membership. Contrary to popular belief, it is possible for some students to stay sober in a Greek organization.
But those in recovery from addiction face unique challenges. These students have a genetic and psychological vulnerability to substance abuse. Seeing alcohol, smelling it or talking about it can trigger intense cravings that lead to relapse. In general, students in recovery have to avoid college parties, bars and clubs. Exposure to triggers is too risky.
Joining a traditional fraternity or sorority is probably the wrong choice for these students. When Brett Watson enrolled at the University of Central Florida, he didn’t know he was more vulnerable to addiction than other students. Drinking and partying became his top priority, and his education suffered.
See how alcohol affected Brett Watson’s first attempt at college:
Watson eventually dropped out of school and sought treatment for addiction. When he returned to UCF as a student in recovery, he helped create sober organizations for students who didn’t want to drink.
One of these programs is a collegiate recovery program, also referred to as a collegiate recovery community. CRCs are dedicated to helping students in recovery from addiction thrive in college. More than 100 colleges in the United States currently offer a collegiate recovery program, and an increasing number of schools are preparing to implement one.
A sober fraternity that’s similar to a CRC opened in the fall of 2017 at the University of Texas’s Austin campus. The fraternity is called Alpha 180, and it isn’t part of the Greek system. It’s a college re-entry program for students who have completed addiction treatment and maintained 90 days of sobriety.
Numerous college campuses also house less formal student-run organizations dedicated to sobriety. Any student who wants to have fun without alcohol or other drugs can join these organizations. Like Greek organizations, most sober student groups host service activities, philanthropic events and social activities. However, sober student groups are usually less demanding of your time and money.
Students who join fraternities and sororities have the opportunity to develop life skills, gain leadership experience and build long-lasting friendships. They also have to overcome challenges, such as strenuous time commitments, financial obligations and regular exposure to alcohol.
Before joining a fraternity or sorority, take some time to research the Greek organizations on your campus and think about what you hope to gain from membership. If going Greek seems right for you, participate in recruitment events and look for a fraternity or sorority that aligns with your values and goals.