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The College Decision: Fraternities, Sororities and College Social Life (Part 3 of 5)

You don't have to join a fraternity or sorority to "have a life."

Greeks: either you love them or hate them.

On most large public universities, fraternities and sororities dominate social life, which means either you’re in a frat or sorority or you go bowling on Friday nights.

Private colleges vary widely: some of them have no frats (Harvard, Georgetown,), some have quasi-frats (Princeton, Yale), and some colleges have high frat participation (Cornell, Dartmouth). Typically, a “high frat” college is one at which more than 30 percent of students join a fraternity or sorority.

So how do you find out the “frat content” of a college? If you ask the admissions office “Are frats a big deal here?” you will get some version of “Not really.” Either the actual answer is no, or the admissions office doesn’t want to admit that frats are a big deal. Fraternities and sororities are often the cause of embarrassment, and admissions offices won’t be quick to share embarrassing information. Even at high-frat schools, the admissions office will give you some version of “There are frats if you’re interested, but there are numerous other social and living options for upperclassmen who aren’t interested in frats.” Translation: Frats are a big deal, and either you join one or you spend Friday night ordering pizza and watching Jersey Shore re-runs.

How do you find out the truth? First, find a junior, senior, or recent graduate of the college, and ask them; unless they work for the admissions office, they will usually give you a fair and reasonable answer. Second, ask the admissions office what percent of upperclassmen (juniors and seniors) join fraternities and sororities. You can then take this number and compare it with the other colleges you’re considering.

You should translate the answer like this:

  • Less than 20 percent of upperclassmen in frats and sororities: not a big deal; substantial social life exists outside of frats.
  • 20-30 percent: not bad, but you will probably “loose” some freshmen friends to frats unless you join too.
  • 30-50 percent: not much social life outside of frats; you will want to join one (or get a satellite dish to amuse yourself while all your friends are at frat parties).
  • Over 50 percent: frat city; you should either love frats or not apply to this college.

Whether or not you would like to join a fraternity is a complex question. While many fraternities are of the Animal House variety, colleges are aggressively trying to reform the Greek scene by (typically) limiting or banning kegs, restricting alcohol during rush weeks, punishing hazing/initiation rites, and often requiring parties to be registered and/or monitored. The social life the Greeks engender usually is of the superficial, Mardi Gras sort, but they do tend to provide some semblance of community at large universities where there otherwise is little.

It’s also worth noting that frat culture can vary greatly from college to college and region to region. Fraternities in the South are much less Animal House and much more country-club and usually have a strong (and serious) emphasis on community service. It’s also not unusual for southern fraternities to have black-tie events, sometimes several per year. Of course, they also sometimes have dress-as-your-favorite-Confederate-soldier events

Another question to ask admissions offices and current students is whether or not a large number of students stay on-campus or in town over the summer. Usually, if a large number of students stick around over the summer, then the college and/or the town have developed a desirable collegiate community. It’s a bit suspect if all the students immediately evacuate the campus and town once final exams are over: what’s wrong that everyone is so interested in getting out?

And finally, the political climate on campus may affect the social life of the community. Political activists on college campuses have birthed untold inanities, from protesting the campus newspaper by stealing and destroying all the copies (Cornell) to requiring students to sign a “dating agreement” prior to going on a date which spells out what each person can and cannot expect from the other (Antioch). And in many cases, the professors on campus tend to be activists, chasing the latest theoretical fad and exorcising the newest demon in society. Some campuses are notoriously activist – Stanford, UC-Berkeley, U. Michigan, Duke. You can ask current students and recent graduates about the political climate, but this may be fruitless because different people will have different opinions: the liberal activist may think the UC Berkeley campus isn’t political enough. You should pick up a copy of the campus newspaper when you visit, and hopefully you have a well-informed counselor who can teach you the ways of campus politics.

Crime. One of the topics that colleges do not wish to discuss is campus crime. In fact, colleges only started reporting crime statistics in the 1990s because federal law required it. Before the government required campuses to reveal their crime statistics, it was almost impossible to discover a campus’s crime rate. The mandatory detailed reporting of manslaughter, hate crimes, and weapons offenses only dates back to 1998. Even now, the best source of information about crime on campus is from the FBI; colleges collect and report this information, but they are not interested in disseminating this information. Recently, the U.S. Education Department created a web site for campus crime statistics, but the statistics on that web site are jumbled and, in many cases, clearly inaccurate (in the past three years Brown reported only one drug and no liquor violations – does anyone believe that’s accurate?). Colleges sometimes claim that the reporting process is too confusing or that they didn’t have enough time to “add up the numbers.” The same people who are responsible for organizing the lives of tens of thousands of undergraduates can’t seem to add 500 (or so) arrests made for weapons and drug charges. More than one government official has suggested that colleges are less than interested in reporting accurate crime statistics (despite the laws that require them to do so and the $25,000 per instance fine if they don’t).

The only way to get reasonably accurate information about crime on campus is to have an informed college counselor who can get his or her hands on the statistics. Colleges are required by federal law to provide a crime summary to those who ask for it, but they often make this process cumbersome and lengthy. For example, they may require you to request the crime report in writing. Usually, the easiest thing to do is to ask for the crime summary while you’re visiting. (By the way, the FBI refers to it as “crime” whereas most colleges refer to it as “security.”)

College campuses are usually very safe, but they can also be prime targets for criminal activity. For example, thieves take advantage of the close-knit community and relaxed security on some college campuses to easily steal televisions and stereos. Crime matters for one simple reason: most teenagers have yet to develop the responsibility necessary to avoid being a victim. Parents worry; the suburbs are safe; the house and car have alarm systems. None of this may be true on a college campus. (Parents may still worry, but they won’t lock the dorm door each night.)

The most dangerous college campuses tend to be large public universities such as Michigan State and UC Berkeley. Campuses can also be dangerous because of their neighborhoods. Most colleges, particularly private colleges, are very aware of the potential for crime on their campuses and in their communities and usually employ private security firms.

Many colleges, such as UC Berkeley and U. Miami, suffer from being in or near unsafe neighborhoods and being either powerless or unwilling to do anything about the crime in the area. What is often most disturbing about this situation is that, often, the college owns and controls much of the real estate surrounding the campus. For example, there is a park near the UC Berkeley campus that is a notorious home for all sorts of derelicts, alcoholics and drug-dealers. Although many students have asked Berkeley to do something about this problem, the college has refused; this is particularly galling when one considers that the college actually owns the park.

You will want to make sure you feel safe and comfortable at college (and that you will feel safe parking your car, bringing your stereo, walking to class or club meetings at night). How do to find out about the crime on and near campuses if colleges are so unwilling to be honest on this subject? Visit the campus; walk around the campus and around the surrounding neighborhood at night. (Many colleges will offer to “shuttle” you to the campus in lieu of you driving yourself; kindly decline this offer. Drive to the campus yourself. You should find out if the surrounding neighborhoods are safe.) While visiting the college, pick up both the college newspaper and the local neighborhood’s newspaper; this will help you get a good idea if the area is “high crime.” Often, the best people to talk to are the campus security guards. They are often not employed directly by the college and have not undergone any training from the admissions office. In most cases, they will be candid. While security guards don’t know what goes on in the classroom, they usually have a very good idea of what campus life is like: crime, parties, emergencies, and so forth. Finally, ask a few current students (who aren’t employed by the admissions office) and recent grads about crime on campus.

One last word: the most common crime on campus is theft (mostly committed by other students). So I suggest not bringing anything highly valuable to campus until you’ve lived there at least one full semester. You need to get to know what your roommate, the campus, and the surrounding area.

This is the third in a five-part series. The next installment will look at professors’s salaries, majors, inside information.

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