“Toga Toga Toga!” Let’s be honest. Aren’t fraternities overrated? “TOGA! TOGA!” “Toga! Toga! Toga!” So, let’s take a look at the fraternities that really fit the word “frats.” We’ll leave out the explicitly ethnic, religious, and academic fraternities, and we’ll try to remember that every fraternity at every college is different.
Still, you know the stereotype. It’s the type of place that chants “Nerds! Nerds! Nerds!”…like, a lot cooler than that. “Nerds! Nerds! Nerds! Nerds!” “Where are they?” “I think they’re talking about us.” Even when we just look at the goofy, party side of frats, there are real negatives.
Studies have shown that frats correlate with increased binge drinking and an average .25 drop in GPA. It’s only once you look into the long history of fraternities that you understand why Greek life became a part of college life. And why it’s unlikely to go away anytime soon.
Here’s Benjamin Franklin opening a Masonic lodge. Fraternal organizations in the United States, like the Freemasons, are actually key to understanding college fraternities. You know that eye on his apron kinda looks like a mystical belly button? Early fraternity histories point to Phi Beta Kappa as the first fraternity, founded at
William & Mary in Virginia. It was an honor society, and early fraternities were similarly academic. By 1825, three purely social fraternities at Union College in Schenectady formed. The college system had begun. The next year, a man named William Morgan was murdered. Morgan died mysteriously after threatening to expose Masonic secrets.
This led to an entire political party — the anti-Masonic party — revolting against the Masons in America. It’s less about the mysterious murder than the climate. Secret societies were a big deal, and people were kind of afraid of them. That included adult fraternities like the Masons, but also secret societies in colleges.
Colleges preferred open celebrations of school, like this bucolic, only slightly violent, class day from the 1850s. This 1900s issue of a Sigma Nu journal shows consequences of anti-fraternity sentiment: Laws that banned fraternities or forced them to operate in secret. Even successful fraternities had to find strategies to fight this.
Delta Upsilon started as an anti-secret fraternity – a frat without secret rituals, for this reason. It seemed like frats were on the way out. So what changed? This chart and this flagpole are equally important to understand how frats took over schools.
Look at that jump from 63,000 students in 1870 to 600,000 in 1920. It’s massive. This jump in enrollment created a lot of problems — and fraternities helped colleges solve them. Like that kid on the flagpole. College “flag rush” – where freshmen and sophomores battled over a flag –
Was popular for everybody, not just frat kids. Look at those ripped clothes. Students were injured and even killed during the scramble. The point is, college students are idiotic. Full stop. And colleges started to see Greek life as a tool to maintain order. First, fraternities provided housing for that rapidly swelling student population.
Fraternities also provided infrastructure for disciplining a horde of students. “Well well well.” You see scenes like these and wonder why Deans keep fraternities around. But the administration actually brought them back. As former frat members aged into leadership roles, they realized that fraternities gave them somebody to yell at.
“Greg, what is the worst fraternity on this campus?” Fraternities are distributed discipline. Deans could yell at Greek leaders, who could yell at upperclassmen, who could yell at underclassmen, instead of having to discipline that giant section of the bar chart all by themselves. And the big reason for keeping frats around?
Administrators realized that frats led to money after college. Alumni donations from fraternity and sorority members are higher than from other students. Students loved the university through their fraternities — and the university had a lot of reasons to stay chained to them. That same paper that showed that fraternities increase binge drinking?
It also showed that they increase alumni income because of the networking opportunities. That’s without even mentioning the lifelong friendships that Greek members form. But the downsides of fraternities can be a lot worse than what we see in the movies.
It’s easy to marvel at 100 year old hazing, but as Caitlin Flanagan wrote in The Atlantic, all that binge drinking and hazing can have life-threatening consequences. She notes disproportionate injuries in fraternity housing, high alcohol use, and alleged sexual assault, along with a lasting legacy of racial discrimination.
Whether fraternities are overrated depends how you view them and how you view college students. We’re all asking the same questions as those administrators in the 1800s. And we have to figure out if their solutions are still the right ones today. How you view students, and maybe even all people, changes your answer.
Do frats help control the problems in college life? Or do they create them? You might have noticed that we used the word fraternities a lot more than sororities, and part of that is historical — for much of their duration, sororities were actually called women’s fraternities.