Perceptive Greek Programming

New survey finds vastly different student perceptions of and engagement in fraternity and sorority life, some of them damning. But officials are using the results to improve programming and defend their work.

March 13, 2012

PHOENIX -- Surveys have repeatedly established a number of perpetual truths about the men and women who participate in Greek life. They tend to be white, not to be transfer students, and to have better retention and graduation rates than the general student population. They are more involved in campus activities, interact more with faculty and generally have more positive things to say about the campus environment.

All of those facts can be useful to college officials working with fraternities and sororities. But taking it a step further, some institutions are tapping into less tangible things to improve the culture and acceptance of Greek life on campus: namely, the perceptions, motivations and goals of fraternity and sorority members -- not all of which are positive. 

Administrators from a few of those universities shared how such insights are making a difference in their programming Monday, here at the annual convention of NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education.

The new study was the product of the NASPA Assessment and Knowledge Consortium, a series of assessment tools established four years ago to gather benchmarking data in key student affairs areas. The Fraternity and Sorority Life Benchmark survey, created in conjunction with the Association of Fraternity and Sorority Advisors, went out at 31 institutions, diverse in type and region, all of which pay a fee to use the tool. In total, about 9,000 respondents participated.

In gauging perceptions of Greek life, the survey questioned both members and non-members of fraternities and sororities. Not surprisingly, there were some major differences -- but not always where one might expect.

For instance, fraternity and sorority members significantly undersold themselves when asked what their peers thought of Greek life. While 61 percent of Greek students said non-Greeks viewed them negatively, in truth, only 42 percent of non-Greeks did. But those results still raise a number of questions, said Annemieke Rice, director of campus success at the assessment firm Campus Labs (and herself a Kappa Alpha Theta when she was in college).

"The perception and the reality are closer in this case than they are, for example, in how much they think other students drink. But either way, these are troublesome numbers -- both the perception and the reality," Rice said. "They're drawing a line between 'my side' and 'the other side' in terms of how they think people understand them. And that is clearly a concern."

But there are other areas where larger numbers of non-Greek members do hold much more negative views of fraternity and sorority life than do participants in the Greek system themselves. While 95 percent of members agreed that Greek life provides meaningful leadership experience, only 44 percent of non-members said so. The gap is even wider on the question of whether the Greek system improves campus life: 92 percent of members said yes, compared to 29 percent of non-members.

And digging into the root of why non-Greeks feel that way only exacerbates Rice's concern. Seventy-seven percent said their impressions were based on interactions with fraternity and sorority members. (Interestingly, 14 percent said they "never" interact with their Greek counterparts.)

"That's not easy to fix," Rice said, to laughs from the sizable audience. Students also derived their perceptions of fraternities and sororities from secondhand information from members, followed by the on-campus events thrown by Greek organizations. Rice suggested that it may be beneficial for administrators to have more of a hand in planning and executing these events -- even if the students are resistant.

"It's obvious here that the members themselves are the solution to the problem," she said.

In a short but notable section on hazing, 93 percent of fraternity and sorority members said they were "extremely knowledgeable" about what constitutes hazing, and 39 percent discuss hazing prevention multiple times a semester -- yet a full 94 percent said hazing "never" occurs. "How cool is that?" Rice said sarcastically, while giving the crowd a sincere pat on the back for educating the students on hazing.

When it came to perceived perceptions of university employees, fraternity and sorority members were slightly more forgiving. Thirty-seven percent said faculty viewed them negatively and 28 percent said they were viewed positively; for staff, the percentages were 34 and 28, respectively.

Of the students who withdrew from recruitment or deactivated after joining a chapter, 43 percent said they didn't connect with members, 41 percent said they disagreed with the policies and 38 percent said they didn't get a good impression of Greek life.

But those who stayed seemed to be getting what they wanted. The top reasons students cited for joining the Greek system were for the social experiences, to connect with students with similar interests, to be more involved with the campus community and to get leadership opportunities. As Rice pointed out, the students reported many of the motivations administrators would want them to give.

And a number of other results indicated that many of the students should be satisfied. Ninety-eight percent said they were able to connect with other students, and 97 percent said they met individuals with different interests (even though that outcome didn't rank high on the "reasons for joining" question). At the same time, only 47 percent said they connected with staff and administrators, and even fewer (44 percent) reported connecting with faculty. (Underscoring this point, when Rice asked if anybody in the room had any kind of Greek program or event involving faculty, only a couple of hands went up.)

Seventy percent of students reported high levels of involvement and leadership, with 79 percent saying they "always" attend the two to three weekly meetings that Greek life typically entails. But while that seems positive at face value, Rice said the officials in the room should be asking themselves a key question: whether these pressures are sustainable and beneficial to the students.

"Folks who have leadership positions and involvement in Greek life also tend to have leadership and involvement elsewhere on campus," she said. "Involvement is important, but more important is the outcome of that."

At Eastern Michigan University, staff are sharing their "very positive" survey findings all the way up through the Board of Regents, to demonstrate the value of Greek life, said Elizabeth Broughton, an educational leadership professor.

"This kind of instrument validates what we're doing with our Greeks, and what contributions they make, and we can put it in front of our administration" -- particularly at a time when tight budgets are leading to interrogations on why Greek life staff are necessary, said Ellen Gold, executive director of student well-being at Eastern Michigan. She offered a couple of suggestions to help colleges improve their survey results, as well.

"One thing that's been helpful to get non-Greek students to better understand Greeks is to not just have our Greeks conduct programs by 'this fraternity or sorority,' " she said, "but to ask them to conduct a program in collaboration with another student organization that's not a Greek organization. To have them reach out to the student community and understand, 'We're just like you -- in fact, we're ahead of you in many ways,' " in terms of skills sets and community engagement.

Eastern Michigan's results showed that 84 percent of Greek students belong to at least one other student organization, compared to 34 percent of non-Greeks. Further, 56 percent of Greeks said they connected with staff and administrators, and 55 percent did so with faculty, no doubt thanks to the university's Greek Standards and Assessment Program. That instrument links students to a faculty or staff for conversational interviews around five key areas including leadership development and civic engagement.

At the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, where only 1 percent of students call themselves Greek, the director of student involvement, Eric Jessup-Anger, is using the survey results to build up the fraternity and sorority culture on campus.

On other campuses, the problem is that non-Greeks have false perceptions of fraternity and sorority members. On Jessup-Anger's campus, the problem is that they have no perceptions at all. But since he's started spreading the results around, students are starting to inquire more often, and administrators are becoming more educated about this small population.

At the University of Florida, where 15 percent of students are involved in Greek life, officials and students are still figuring out what to do with the data. But it's already become clear that fraternities and sororities have a pretty serious public relations problem when it comes to how non-Greeks perceive them. For one thing, most students don't think fraternity and sorority members do any community service.

"It actually stunned our Greeks to hear some of the things our non-Greeks said," said Jeanna Mastrodicasa, Florida's assistant vice president for student affairs.


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