An Inevitable Divorce: Fraternity & Higher Education

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You will hear it like a battle cry at every Association of Fraternity & Sorority Advisers (AFA) Annual Meeting. In this setting, fraternity and sorority professionals affirm to one another their importance on college campuses, the research that needs to be done regarding Fraternity & Sorority Life and our commitment to common values above all else. All attendees share in experiencing programs that inspire excitement for possibility and disappointment in stagnation at one time, though not everything at this meeting is unifying.

Underneath the call for us all to live by our values and to advance the profession a battle for power exists. Notoriously inept headquarters teams believe that improvements in how they work and the fact that the chapters are extensions of their organization give them ultimate control. Campus professionals, usually 1-2 years out of a masters program and rarely at an institution for more than 2-3 years, see themselves as the most local professional contact for students and question a distant, often equally inept, headquarters team.

Neither group publicly acknowledges that they have little control over an administration’s sensationalist response to problems (think Virginia or UCF) and that few if any college administrators attend or care for the meeting.

The stakes are heightening, and the casualty is our membership experience, something we all seek to safeguard and improve. If fraternity will ever be significant, it must break away from higher education for good.

Before delving in to the reasons for the inevitable divorce, let me be clear in that this should in no way imply that campus and headquarters professionals should not work together and build solid, functional relationships. Still, there may be little we can do to prevent the separation of fraternities and sororities from “college,” and it’d be best if we prepared.

Here are three reasons our divorce is inevitable:


College Is Changing

Rule #1 of Business: Don’t align with a sinking ship.

If we were to look at higher education as a business, it is in trouble. States like Georgia have consolidated their state schools and others, like Wisconsin, are making the same considerations. Enrollment is expected to shrink across the nation (save for the beautiful Southeast). Schools need us more than ever to provide affordable student housing, extracurricular activity and entertainment, but are at risk due to limited endowments and funding tied to the perceived morality of their students.

As we’ve mentioned here, he who pays the piper calls the tune, and institutions are being called on by the federal and state governments to become more investigative and hostile to attributes typically associated with the fraternity experience. Type-programming is a bitch.

If we were to look at higher education as a business, it is in trouble.

So combine a shrinking number of students with a shrinking number of colleges and we have one result: membership deficits. We are lifetime organizations, it’s time we take a page out of our NPHC organizations’ book and develop ways to recruit online students and degree-carrying professionals outside of our collegiate component chapters.

Our reliance on our collegiate chapters for funding, recruitment and performance will end. Some fraternities will flourish, having prepared in advance new ways to recruit members, expectations for their alumni initiates and educational programs that fit an increasingly attention-deficient lifestyle. Others will slowly die out, believing they can weather the storm and remaining inexplicably tied to increasingly hostile and unstable partners.

To put it simply, we’ll need to break our dependence on colleges for recruiting educated men and women for the simple fact that most men and women educated 20 years from now will not have the same, physical college experience as our millennial generation.


Educational Control Will Shift To Parents and Students

As previously mentioned, there is a battle for control of the fraternity/sorority experience. We need only look to the wider education landscape to see how this may play out.

The School Revolution (on our reading list) covers a battle between parents, educators and educational agencies that is nearing a breakdown. A child today can obtain an elementary education, for free, from amazing teachers online via the Kahn Academy (among others). She can also experience almost any lecture at Ivy League institutions online for free and from outstanding professors.

As traditional education becomes more expensive, as governments reduce funding or consolidate institutions and as parents increasingly become aware that their worldviews aren’t necessarily shared by their children’s educators; affordable online schools, charter/private schools and homeschooling will become only more attractive. It will be rapid, think of how quickly email and text replaced letters and phone calls. Think of how many degrees are already offered and earned online.

Our students have two, sometimes three if residential life gets involved, sets of confusing requirements. A headquarters preaches year-round recruitment at a campus that only allows chapters to extend bids twice a year and to certain students. A campus professional expects all new members to attend mandatory training and seminars while chapters are hustled by their Fraternity or Sorority staff liaison to attend and complete even more requirements from the national organization.

 Today, one thing is for certain: You cannot compare public education in a small town over fifty years ago to what’ happening in these gigantic schools in today’s cities

-The School Revolution

Every campus has different expectations; every student is overburdened; none of our members are treated with the level of trust or empowerment as a member of student government or the Red Cross Club.

Eventually the students will choose a side to align with, their national organizations or their collegiate professionals, and they’ll argue for its supremacy until one side wins. This all depends on which side approaches education realistically and gives the students creative freedom.

If headquarters teams develop nimble and life-long education platforms for their members they may gain the favor of students, alumni and university administrators looking to cut disposable staffing positions. That’d be terrible for AFA as a whole; it’d represent a significantly reduced number of people.

My knee-jerk suggestion is an understanding for campus professionals to oversee widely-applicable programming (alcohol, hazing, nothing fraternity-specific) and for headquarters teams to focus almost entirely on developing a fraternity-specific leadership and post-graduate experience.

In the near-term, this would eliminate much of the overlap in leadership and ritual programming/expectations. In the long term, it’ll prepare headquarters teams for the eventual transition away from colleges and prepare Fraternity/Sorority Advisers (FSAs) to apply their programming and skills to a wider demographic of students (and keep a job when their school downsizes)


A Different Mindset Will Guide Our Organizations

Probably the most important piece in our inevitable divorce will be the realization that though our organizations started at institutions of higher education, they are not higher education organizations. Much like the American Red Cross has a national organization that coordinates international programming in conjunction with “chapters” at a local and collegiate level, our organizations, if they ever want to be significant, will need to come to a realization and acquire a mindset that those who work at Fraternity and Sorority headquarters need not be considered “higher education professionals.”

The job of a fraternity or sorority is to serve as an association of like-minded people seeking to make a difference in some way, big or small. That is compatible with recruiting students out of college and having an awareness of the higher education landscape, which will continue to play a pivotal, albeit reduced, role in our growth and relevance.

We must; however, learn to distinguish between the two. The majority of any organization’s membership is made up of college graduates; we will pivot to that market out of necessity.

What does this mean? I believe our headquarters teams will one day come to the realization that to focus on the entire membership experience they need to eliminate their exclusive collaboration with the world of higher education.

I believe that our campus professionals too will come to the realization that in order for fraternity and sorority to grow and prosper, a chapter of XYZ Fraternity must be treated equally to other student organizations. No ridiculous recruitment rules, no programming not offered to other students and no “guilty until proven innocent” policies that only apply to fraternities. This is a natural progression; we will come to this point.

. . . though our organizations started at institutions of higher education, they are not higher education organizations

The break will be awkward, but also necessary.

Our chapters cannot be discriminated against in expectations, programming and status from other student organizations at the campus level; this will require the absorption of the fraternity and sorority adviser into a wider role within student life. Members too cannot be left to create their own post-graduate fraternity experience, and so headquarters teams will shift away from a focus on the college market.

All of this will mean more creative freedom for students, less stress for collegiate professionals and more significance on a national scale.

Through it all we professionals must acknowledge how disposable we are in our current state. If institutions widely ban fraternities, as some have already done or maneuvered toward, most fraternities and sororities will collapse, campus professionals will lose their jobs and students will be forced into secret societies.

Change requires fraternity to separate itself from the decisions of campus administrators and campus professionals to distinguish themselves from the unimpressive box of an FSA.

This of course is all just a hypothetical situation. . . inevitable, but hypothetical. 😉


One Response

  1. Well said, friend! I believe more people need to be thinking about this and planning realistically for the future!!