As it turns out, it is Avicii, not Bach, that sets the background music to gatherings of the most elite class in our country.
Each year, 2 million university students prepare to enter the most prestigious enclave of what is already an exclusive set of American institutions. Think less along the lines of Harvard or Yale and more about the Greek letters that come to define them.
Cream of the Frat Crop
Selective colleges are merely the starting point for concentrated success. One only needs to browse the Greek life section of Cornell’s official website and see the slogan “The Power of 2%” to recognize the perks that come with Ivy League admittance and Greek acceptance, especially when it comes to men. [Cornell removed the original page. The link now leads to a cached version.—Ed]
As Cornell’s official website states, while only 2 percent of America’s population is involved in fraternities, 80 percent of Fortune 500 executives, 76 percent of U.S. senators and congressmen, 85 percent of Supreme Court justices, and all but two presidents since 1825 have been fraternity men, according to Cornell.
What’s not to like about “going Greek?”
Well, perhaps that it perpetuates elitism? Putting aside shameful statistical and anecdotal evidence that reveals Greek systems as breeding grounds for sexual assault and alcohol abuse (with 60 fraternity-related deaths in the past ten years), statistics also show fraternities and sororities spawn incredible opportunity for their members.
Unfortunately, they also compound class-based and racial segregation within campuses.
With Liberty and Justice for…the 2 Percent
Rather than a place to nurture leadership skills, “The Power of 2%” slogan suggests the Greek community is little more than an amplifier of wealth and privilege. There is no straightforward way to prove this, since neither the North-American Intrafraternity Council (NIC) nor the National Panhellenic Council publish statistics on the demographics of their population.
However, there are other factors that indicate socioeconomic and racial disparity.
At the most selective colleges, 70 percent of students come from the richest quarter of the population, while a mere 5 percent come from the bottom quarter. Yet, with low levels of income, it is safe to assume this bottom 5 percent of students is likely unable to afford the dues required for Greek life admission.
At University of North Carolina, for example, average fraternity board and dues is $2,970 per semester; at a more expensive university, such as Kansas University, this figure could inflate to $5,300. This amounts to almost $18,000—but could be more than $30,000—for three years in Greek housing (sophomore through senior year). Even with a payment plan, students at the bottom of the income ladder, who are already struggling with debt and working part-time, would have to sacrifice much more to join a Greek house.
Princeton is one of the few universities whose Undergraduate Student Government collected demographic data on its own Greek system. Their research shows that white and higher-income students are much more likely to join fraternities and sororities–77 percent of sorority members and 73 percent of fraternity members were white, compared to only 47 percent of the student body. Moreover, 30 percent and 19 percent of fraternity and sorority members, respectively, were legacy admits, and over 60 percent came from private high schools.
When looking at class, less than 5 percent of Princeton Greek life members were from lower- or middle-class families (below $0-75K). That means 95 percent were from the richest quarter of America. Over 25 percent of Greek members were from the top 1 percent.
Maria Konnikova, journalist for The Atlantic, aptly argues in her recent article, “Fraternities don’t breed leaders so much as leaders breed and perpetuate the fraternity system.” Traditional groups are defined as much by whom they include as by whom they exclude. In the case of fraternities, America’s historic elite—white, rich, and Christian men—are among the in-crowd.
Sociologist Alfred Lee, one of the first to examine prejudice within the Greek system, stated in 1955 that “To the extent that Aryanism [within fraternities] persists, social fraternities represent a basic threat to democracy in the United States.” That the baton of political and economic success is passed largely through fraternity rites means the exclusion of many citizens.
Who was one of the two presidents not in a fraternity? Our first and only non-white president: Barack Obama (the other was Bill Clinton).
We need not look very far to find further proof of these exclusionary tendencies. In its complete history, the University of Alabama has only admitted one black student to a sorority. Articles like “Six of the Most Disturbing Racist and Sexist Themed College Frat Events”—which feature appalling fraternity party themes such as “Colonial Bros and Nava-Hos”— further demonstrate blatant examples of a white-centric culture.
One look at NIC’s website and you’ll find a plethora of self-incriminating photos that shows who leads both Sigma Nu and the U.S. Senate.
Turn Down for What?
Richard Kahlenberg, my colleague at The Century Foundation and education policy expert, makes an important case for class-based affirmative action. But, the conversation should not end with the admissions process.
Even with diversity on university campuses, Greek institutions maintain the authority to segregate privilege and power within colleges based on socioeconomic thresholds. And past patterns of segregation, legacy, and elitism suggest the Greek community—unchecked—will continue as a bastion of classism and racism.
The real question is, what is there to like about “going Greek”? For the small percentage of Americans who are a part of it, Greek life represents a lifetime of networking opportunities to which they would probably already have access. For the rest of the students, all that’s left is blatant exclusion.
Dismantling the Greek system is probably unfeasible—fraternity and sorority alumni represent the largest sector of lifetime donors to colleges, four times more than non-Greeks, and thus have a firm grip on university politics.
Additionally, one-in-eight college students lives in a Greek house. The estimated collective value of these houses is around $3 billion, which saves colleges from the costs of owning and maintaining these facilities. Greek life also attracts students, and it’s unlikely that universities will jump to cut an appealing part of their image for their highest-paying customers.
However, breaking up the elitist domain fraternity and sorority communities represent is the right thing to do. Despite the potential for controversy, some colleges have already begun to cut the mixer-to-Senate pipeline. Amherst, Middlebury, Williams, and Alfred College are just a few examples of institutions that have banned Greek life from their campuses.
As the driver of the ban, Middlebury cited the need for a safer and more egalitarian environment on campus; the university was prompted by a battered and bloodied female mannequin hanging from the window of Delta Upsilon—with a sexist slur written across its back.
In the meantime, universities should require fraternities and sororities to publish demographic data in an effort to increase transparency and diversity within the Greek system.
While institutional shifts are essential to address socioeconomic and racial disparities, the important social transition must come on a more micro level. Incoming students and their parents must be made aware of historical discrimination that accompanies the prestigious letters of the Greek system. The narrative surrounding Greek life today must encourage students to reflect on the type of society their Greek participation perpetuates.
Students should be urged to ask how they can make university and government institutions more egalitarian, rather than homogenous.
The loudest, bass-thumping 2 percent of America should not automatically be entitled to become our country’s most powerful group of citizens.