Wednesday, April 01, 2009

One Size Does Not Fit All

Why Not Go Greek?
by David Moltz

NATIONAL HARBOR, MD. – Though national figures suggest the number of undergraduates associated with Greek organizations has increased slightly in recent years, some individual campuses have seen their chapters struggle with recruitment and retention. In an effort to explore this phenomenon, a new study attempts to profile those students who decide not to join Greek organizations and chronicles their reasons for opting out.

Kristin S. Fouts, assistant director of the student activities and leadership program at Western Michigan University, presented her study before a group of student affairs administrators at a Tuesday meeting of the American College Personnel Association. The study is based on separately conducted surveys of more than 1,500 undergraduates at Wichita State and Western Michigan Universities.

At both institutions, about 86 percent of the surveyed students had not participated in a “fraternity or sorority recruitment or intake activity.” These students cited a number of reasons for not participating. Chief among them, 74 percent of these students they did not care to be associated with the “negative stereotypes associated with membership.” Sixty-four percent of them responded that there was “no perceived benefit” to participation in a Greek organization, 62 percent reported they "could not commit to membership.”

These students were then asked, “What could have changed your decision to not seek membership?” Forty percent responded “overall positive publicity,” and 36 percent said a “clearly conveyed value/benefit.” The remainder said that nothing could have changed their minds.

Those students who had participated in a Greek recruitment activity but ultimately did not join an organization cited most of the same reasons for their decision. Some, however, also noted that they were “not comfortable with the process.”

On a more positive note, many students who sought out fraternity or sorority membership did so because of the influence of their peers who were already members. Sixty-seven percent of these students said their primary interest was to making new friends. Forty-eight percent said the “social scene” attracted them, and 44 percent said “leadership development” was among the factors that made them participate.

Fouts, however, expressed a number of concerns about the figures expressed in her study. Nearly 60 percent of students who did not participate noted that the “source of [their] knowledge/understanding of social fraternities and sororities” came primarily from television shows and movies.

“Though we cannot stop what they see on television and in the movies, we can help debunk what they see,” Fouts said of incoming students and their perceptions of Greek life. “Maybe we can sway the tipping point of students who have some knowledge [of the Greek system].”

Fouts added that the student dissatisfaction with the recruitment process should raise a red flag for student affairs officials. Looking at this data, she noted that Western Michigan recently made a change in the way its sororities can recruit. Previously, sororities recruited in four rounds over the course of three days, often not offering time for students with other commitments to participate. Now, these recruitment cycles are more spread out and allow for make-up rounds.

The current economic crisis has changed the way students think about money, and Fouts acknowledges that perceptions about fraternity and sorority dues are no different. Chapters and student affairs offices, she said, will have to be "line-item specific" as to what these dues are for and how they will be spent to the benefit of the student. She argued that interested students should not be brought to think of their funds as “paying for friends,” as many an old cliché of fraternity life states.

“Students need to know specifically what is going to be required of them,” Fouts said of financial commitments. “If your organization is hesitant to put that out there, then I challenge you to encourage them to be more specific up front with that [for prospective members].”

Fouts and others familiar with Greek issues at the meeting said they were unsure how the economic crisis would impact membership. Still, some acknowledged that those students with only a cursory interest in a fraternity or a sorority might only see dollar signs before noting the potential benefits of Greek life.

Perhaps the most troubling bit of data to those in attendance -- primarily student affairs officers who see the Greek system as a positive infleunce on their campuses -- was that 44 percent of those students did not seek Greek membership because their “personal values conflicted with the perceived chapter values.” Some argued that Greek organizations must be modified to resemble the diversity of their campuses, saying that those that don’t will fail.

“One size does not fit all,” Fouts said. “We can no longer be passive with recruiting.”

Others noted that some of their students were interested in Greek life, just not with any of the organizations that were present on their campuses. Bethany Manley-Craig, assistant director of student development at New England College, said many of the more local fraternities and sororities on her campus simply cannot attract members in the way that national organizations can, even when they do not have a local chapter. For some students, she said, this presents a situation wherein they cannot find an organization that shares their values.

Humberto Baquerizo, assistant director of Greek life and wellness at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, said he believed many of today’s students look to Greek organizations for more than just “foam parties” and other social gatherings. He said many at his institution seek an outlet for community service, advising, guidance and a sense of “family.”

If students do not find these values expressed in the Greek system on their campuses, many at the meeting said, they would find them elsewhere. Most seemed to think that non-Greek organizations have begun fulfilling the leadership and service roles once predominately held by fraternities and sororities at their institutions. This environment, they argued, gives these groups less of a hold on today’s students.

Charles G. Eberly, professor of counseling and student development at Eastern Illinois University, said some Greek organizations could be in danger of extinction if they do not change. He argued that fraternities and sororities should get rid of the “pledge system” by which students must earn full membership. This, he said, would foster a “culture of integrity” among these organizations, something he believes today’s students demand.

“Millennial students react negatively to a culture of entitlement,” said Eberly of something he believes the pledge system cultivates. “If we don’t make changes, students are voting with their feet and these organizations will disappear.”

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