Go Greek and See Grades Drop?

A study presented at the American Economic Association suggests that students' GPAs fall after becoming Greek affiliated and that joining a fraternity or sorority doesn't necessarily guarantee a higher salary.

January 7, 2019
 
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Greek organizations often tout their members' high grade point averages and potential for career connections (and high salaries).

But a report by two researchers at Miami University is questioning whether those assertions are accurate. The study, “Greek Life, Academics and Earnings,” was presented Sunday at the American Economic Association’s annual meeting.

Affiliation with a fraternity or sorority can in fact lower students’ grades, particularly around the time recruits are being inducted into a Greek chapter, called rushing, according to the findings by William E. Even, a professor of economics, and Austin C. Smith, an assistant professor of economics.

In an interview, Smith stressed that he and his colleague were not wholeheartedly condemning Greek organizations, as some Greek-affiliated students do maintain high GPAs and find social and, later, career success from fraternities or sororities, he said. But Smith said he noticed that chapters would often market a higher-than-average GPA compared to the rest of campus and believed that it was a disingenuous claim. Most institutions require a minimum GPA to join (the anonymous large, Midwestern public university that they studied demanded a 2.5 GPA or above) and Smith said if the Greek groups were only pulling from students with good grades, then they would always have a higher average. He also noted that Greek organizations often were the center of controversies involving alcohol abuse, hazing and sexual misconduct.

For about 10 years, the professors tracked more than 34,100 students’ academics -- GPAs, whether they remained in college and what courses they enrolled in. Because the university they researched did not allow students to join a Greek organization until the second semester of their first year, they were able to compare how students performed in their first semester when they were not Greek affiliated versus when they were entering a chapter and in subsequent semesters.

The dip in academics was most prominent around rush, but generally, students in Greek life saw their GPA fall by an average of about 0.25 points compared to the initial semester in college, which to illustrate, could be almost the difference between a B and B-minus average. During the rush period, students also either withdrew from classes or more frequently decided to take easier courses than their first semester. The study did note, however, that on average Greek-affiliated students had a GPA between 0.1 and 0.2 points higher than non-Greek students, but the researchers attributed this to the minimum GPA requirement.

The researchers also found that while students who had been in Greek chapters reported higher salaries than the rest of the campus population, they did not have enough evidence to prove that Greek life was the result of this increase.

A spokeswoman with the North American Interfraternity Conference responded to a request for comment by directing a reporter to a letter that Judson Horras, the group's president, and Dani Weatherford, the executive director of the National Panhellenic Conference, submitted to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The leaders wrote that while they "applauded" the authors for "putting a spotlight" on academics in sorority and fraternity life, the study painted a limited picture. They cited other research that showed retention is improved by involvement in Greek organizations.

"Further research shows the stress of first-year students stems from loneliness, and sororities and fraternities provide connection, friendship and a strong support system," they wrote.

Institutions, as a more transparent measure, instead of advertising the average chapter GPAs, should consider sharing how students’ grades either slipped or were boosted after they joined a fraternity or sorority, Smith said.

He also said that Greek academic success and completion isn’t discussed much, but that often these chapters are influential campus constituents, and alumni and presidents and other leaders are disinclined to “rock the boat” among them.

Raising the minimum GPA necessary to rush might be helpful, Smith said. In the study, the grades of students who just made the 2.5 GPA cutoff suffered much more compared to those with higher GPAs.

While college presidents and chancellors often speak of carefully using student data to measure student completion and success, it is almost unheard-of for them to address poor academics among Greek chapters, though they do so for other student populations and have tried to clamp down on the other problems that can sometimes plague chapters.

Other commitments in college -- work, athletics or other extracurricular activities -- can also distract students, and so the decline in grades likely can’t be pinned solely to Greek life, said Alison Griffin, senior vice president at consulting firm Whiteboard Advisors, who previously was policy adviser to the chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce and worked in student affairs for many years.

Greek organizations are constantly monitoring how their students are doing in the classroom, Griffin said, but she’s never heard of a president or other high-ranking administrator tracking Greek-affiliated students more closely because it would be essentially singling them out.

Griffin also noted that many students who participate in Greek life are of the traditional college age (18-22) and might not be developmentally mature enough yet to make decisions, which is why supporting them academically, and the campus writ large, is so important.

“You can’t just hone in on students who are Greek affiliated,” Griffin said.

Dave Jarrat, senior vice president for strategic engagement and growth with InsideTrack, an organization that universities hire to help coach students in careers and academics, said that presidents and provosts need to focus on achievement gaps, whether that be for a particular ethnic group, or among students in Greek life.

Jarrat urged students to be thoughtful about what organizations they join -- especially if they’re worried about grades.

“Conduct informational interviews with friends and families who might be part of similar organizations to see if it’s the right fit for you,” he said. “Sometimes students rush into it out of peer pressure and the need to belong to a certain organization.”

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