Implications of the Declining Economy of Fraternities and Sororities
Noah Borton, Eastern Michigan University March 2009
It is nearly impossible to turn on a news program without learning new ways that the nation’s declining economy is negatively impacting life as we know it. Though more insulated than other sectors, higher education is by no means spared from the current recession. Institutions across the country are bracing for financial hardship in the form of declining investment returns for endowments, reduced state appropriations, and declining enrollment (Knecht, 2009; Wolverton, 2008). The existence of some smaller, private institutions is in question (Carlson, 2008).
This begs the questions: how will this recession impact fraternities and sororities? Does this threaten their viability and relevance in a higher education environment that is being shaped by new calls for accountability? These questions are nuanced and complex. As professionals grapple with this emerging environment, the following are points to consider regarding the potential economic impacts for international organization staff, campus professionals, and undergraduate fraternity and sorority chapters.
Challenging economic times require everyone to reevaluate luxury spending. This is true for college students as well. For some students, joining a fraternity or sorority is not a requirement for succeeding in college, but a luxury item that is secondary to other expenses related to their education. In addition, with the continued expansion of other student organizations and involvement opportunities on college campuses, fraternities and sororities must aggressively manage costs to remain competitive.
Inter/National Organization Staff
Disproportionately significant costs for most organizations, especially many men’s groups, are risk management and insurance premiums. Some of the nation’s largest insurance carriers have posted losses in 2008 due to the combination of paying out large claims and declines in their stock holdings. The last time we saw something of this nature was in the wake of the September 11th attacks when companies responded by raising insurance premiums to compensate for their losses in the market (Soule, 2008). It is likely this pattern will repeat in 2009, and insurance rates for inter/national organizations will continue to increase. As this cost is passed along to undergraduate members, it becomes decreasingly possible for middle and working class students to afford the luxury of fraternity and sorority membership. To address this, inter/national organizations must continue to aggressively reduce risk within the organization while identifying opportunities to address their insurance needs without passing the cost along to their undergraduates.
Most campuses are facing declining economic resources. While some institutions may be seeking new efficiencies and trimming programming, others will be making significant and strategic cuts. At a certain point, institutions will be faced with the difficult decisions to reduce or eliminate programs and departments that are viewed as peripheral to the educational mission of the institution. Therefore, campus professionals must be prepared to demonstrate that fraternity and sorority life augments the educational mission of the college or university. Impassioned invocations of leadership opportunities and community service events will be insufficient in this climate. Professionals must be equipped with empirical data that demonstrates the outcomes of a fraternal experience. These outcomes must then be explicitly linked to the resources allocated by the institution in support of these organizations.
To support a credible argument for the relevance of institutional support for fraternity and sorority life, the data gathering process must commence long before an argument is necessary. Several instruments such as the AFA/EBI Fraternity/Sorority Assessment and the Fraternity/Sorority Experience Survey (FSES) from the Center for the Study of the College Fraternity can provide quantitative data on the fraternal experience. It is also possible to use existing institutional data sets from instruments such as the National Study of Student Engagement (NSSE), National College Health Assessment (NCHA) or University Learning Outcomes Assessment (UniLOA). Also consider examining other forms of data including academic performance, student retention, and alcohol consumption rates. If positive trends can be demonstrated in these areas, then focus groups can be an effective tool to develop qualitative data that provides insight on these trends.
The fraternity/sorority experience is often built around the traditional undergraduate, residential experience. As more and more students face economic challenges, they will increasingly have a less traditional experience. This includes working additional hours at an off-campus job and commuting from home. It is also likely that students will seek alternative modes of course delivery such as enrolling in more night, weekend, and online classes (Kolowich, 2009). The traditional recruitment tip of “talk to people who sit next to you in class” takes on new meaning when students are sitting next to a 42-year-old mother of three in their Saturday business management class or while working on an online course from their bedroom.
Initially, encourage chapters to evaluate their policies and practices to determine the extent to which they needlessly exclude a significant portion of the student population from their chapters. One policy that creates barriers is the requirement that members live in a chapter facility; living at home may render this impossible. Individuals may also have difficulty with the timing of meetings and events. For example, if students commute to campus Mondays and Wednesdays, Sunday chapter meetings might not be feasible for them in the face of a 45-minute commute. Mandatory events could also create potential barriers. Are students missing events because they do not care about the organization, or do they need to skip a sisterhood activity because it compromises their ability to drive home at 11 p.m. and still make it to work the next day by 8 a.m.? By maintaining these policies, fraternities and sororities may exclude individuals who could be phenomenal members, but not through the traditional paradigm of chapter membership.
Fraternities and sororities have survived previous periods of significant economic hardship and challenge. However, doing so required a willingness to redefine the traditional model of the fraternal experience. To effectively do this, individuals must be willing to acknowledge that there may be alternative means for accomplishing the mission of fraternities and sororities while still maintaining economic viability and providing access to the contemporary student population.
Carlson, S. (2008, August 1). Bad economy could harm smaller colleges. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved January 27, 2009, from www.chronicle.com/weekly/v54/i47
Knect, R. (2009, January, 9). Colleges must face reality and recognize opportunity in the economic downturn. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved January 27, 2009, from www.chronicle.com/weekly/v55/i18
Kolowich, S. (2009, January 16). Recession may drive more adult students to take online classes. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved January 27, 2009, from www.chronicle.com/weekly/v55/i19
Soule, A. (2008, November 10). Premium red ink. Fairfield County Business Journal. Retrieved January 27, 2009, from www.fcbizj.biz
Wolverton, B. (2008, March 28). How might a recession impact higher education? The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved January 27, 2009, from www.chronicle.com/weekly/v54/i29