Greek Life Goes All In with Marketing Research, But Does It Tell Us What We Need to Know?

Written By Nik Koulogeorge


Sep. 26, 2021


Nov. 21, 2021


NIC North American Interfraternity Conference Fraternities in News Media
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Fraternities and Sororities: Experiences and Outcomes in College, Work and Life | Gallup (2021)

Fraternities and Sororities: Understanding Life Outcomes | Gallup (2014)

Mental Health and Wellness for Fraternity and Sorority Members | UT-PERC (2020)

New Perspectives on Fraternity and Sorority Life | EverFi (2021)

The Greek Experience Revisited | Gary Pike (2020)

The North American Interfraternity Conference (NIC) is making good on a long-standing promise to invest in more research. Their website currently cites six different studies which are used to imply that fraternity members are better off than their peers in a variety of ways. They are not the only organization investing in fraternity research, of course. Other umbrella associations, colleges/universities, and individual fraternities are all contributing to research meant to improve the fraternity experience, to explain the benefits of fraternity membership, or to validate their work. There is an old saying that "he who pays the piper calls the tune." Statistics can be manipulated for marketing purposes, and we should approach these findings (like any findings) with caution.

In this article, I will explore four of the studies shared on the NIC website. What do they tell us and what don't they tell us about the fraternity experience? How might they be used to influence or endorse the way fraternity organizations function? This inquiry may seem cynical (and maybe it is) but fraternity members should be interested in having good, reliable data more than just having positive and reassuring data. If we do not approach our work with scrutiny, then we leave that responsibility to opponents of the fraternity experience (the news media, Abolish Greek Life, and certain Student Affairs administrators).

I have included downloadable copies of the findings from the studies mentioned below as "attachments" for your information, records, or independent analysis.

6 studies on the NIC website.

The NIC is a trade association representing 57 inter/national men's fraternities. They fund research through their Foundation for Fraternal Excellence. You can read more about the NIC on their website. I could only access reports for four of the six studies listed on the NIC website (I didn't want to pay for access to a 5th). The two studies below will not be included in my list, but I will update this article if I gain access to those reports.

  1. Fraternities & Values of Single-Sex Experience - UT-PERC

  2. Greek Values and Attitudes: A Comparison with Independents; Baier and Whipple (this is a shame because it is the only one that seemed to measure the socioeconomic status of current college students. Read on to see why that would be essential information)

I approached the four remaining studies with one simple question in mind: Does this study make a good case for fraternity membership? You can read the claims the NIC makes, based on these 6 studies, on the "research" page on its website.

The official Gallup Logo1 | Fraternities and Sororities: Experiences and Outcomes in College, Work, and Life; Gallup 2021

This was a follow-up to a 2014 Gallup study on behalf of the NIC and National Panhellenic Conference (NPC - historically white women's groups). More than 10,000 college graduates were surveyed and a little more than 3,000 were members of a fraternity or sorority. Participants answered questions related to a variety of quality of life indicators.

Here's what the NIC reports on its site from this study:

  • Fraternity alumni are twice as likely to feel their alma maters prepared them well for life after college and that they gained important job-related skills

  • Fraternity alumni find jobs more quickly after college and are more engaged in the workplace

  • Fraternity alumni are more likely to be "thriving" in every aspect of wellbeing (career, community, financial, physical, and social wellbeing).

  • Almost half state that another member helped them find an internship or job and prepared them with career advice

  • Fraternity alumni feel a deeper sense of loyalty to their alma mater, are more likely to recommend their school and to donate after graduation.

  • 8 out of 10 members would re-join their organization if they were to re-do college.

The Blindspots:

  1. Are students who have the means to take part in fraternity membership (time, money, and interest) more likely to rate themselves highly on these indicators? The report twice mentions that its quality of life indicators are important regardless of socioeconomic status. But if one reads a little more carefully, they might realize that those statements are not referring to the actual results or methodology of the Gallup studies. It does not track the socioeconomic status of participants at the time that they were in college. Are students who can afford fraternity membership naturally better positioned to live comfortable, fulfilling lives?

  2. Furthermore, few of the points made throughout the study attribute those higher wellbeing scores to membership in a fraternity. In my experience, fraternity men and women are taught to say that membership benefits them in ways tracked by the study ("it's a network," "we give back more," etc.). It is how members are taught to recruit new members. Could fraternity/sorority members just be conditioned to view their lives more positively?

  3. We do not know if the activities, programs, or initiatives of inter/national fraternities or umbrella groups (like the NIC/NPC) affect these scores positively or negatively. What did membership entail for those participants who identified as alums of Greek Life? Did they take part in fraternity leadership programs? Did they hold officer positions? How do alums of local or non-NIC fraternities compare to alums of NIC fraternities?

  4. The final point for this study: Data from the 2021 surveys are reported differently from the 2014 report. It is almost impossible for those without the raw data to compare findings between two surveys that purport to track the same quality of life indicators. Have these scores improved over time? Has the gap between affiliated and unaffiliated graduates widened or shrunk? I am not an expert, so perhaps I am missing something, but this seems important for a "follow-up study."

UT-PERC banner image. Orange with a globe and graph icon2 | Mental Health and Wellness for Fraternity and Sorority Members; Biddix, Assalone, and Grace (UT-PERC)

This study made use of data from a 2018-2019 Healthy Minds Study. The researchers focused on responses from 41,302 students pursuing a bachelor's degree. The purpose of the study was "to examine the current status of mental health experiences and behaviors of fraternity and sorority affiliated students and provide [a] comparison with unaffiliated students."

Here's what the NIC reports on its site from this study:

  • Fraternity members report higher levels of positive mental health and less depression or anxiety than unaffiliated members.

  • Fraternity and sorority members believe that good support systems exist on campus for students going through a tough time.

  • Fraternity and sorority members are more likely to seek therapy or counseling at some point in their lives.

The Blindspots: (The researchers in this study do a good job identifying their own blindspots. Compared to the Gallup surveys, this seems less like paid marketing research and more like research the NIC tailored to its marketing needs.)

  1. This study does a good job of challenging some of its own results. For example, the higher mental health scores attributed to fraternity/sorority membership were not observed among affiliated non-binary students.

  2. The researchers write that fraternity/sorority students "have a higher positive rating of campus support systems, but lower knowledge of where to go to access mental health services if needed." That is strange. How can you have a better impression of services you do not know how to find or use?

  3. They also write, "The extent to which fraternity and sorority involvement helps address mental health among members is theorized but not demonstrated in the research." Furthermore, many of the responses refer to a person's local chapter offers a support system. Nothing suggests that the fraternity/sorority experience curated by umbrella groups, inter/national fraternities, or campus-based FSL departments improves the mental health experiences and behaviors of affiliated students.

3 | The Greek Experience Revisited: The Relationships between Fraternity/Sorority Membership and Student Engagement, Learning Outcomes, Grades, and Satisfaction with College; Pike

This study is listed on both the NIC and NPC websites. It made use of data collected by the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) in 2014 and 2017 and measured 10 "engagement indicators" among 105,825 students in 2014 and 134,335 students in 2017.

Here's what the NIC reports on its site from this study:

  • Members show significantly higher learning gains than their peers in their first year of college.

  • Despite being less diverse than students in general, fraternity/sorority members reported higher levels of interaction with people different from themselves than did other students.

  • 78% of members are more satisfied with their experience [on campus].

  • Members are more involved in co-curricular activities, and membership promotes student leadership and development, as well as satisfaction with the collegiate experience.

  • Fraternity members have stronger interaction with faculty than their peers, with higher rates of feeling like their professors cared about them as a person or made them excited about learning.

The Blindspots:

  1. This quote pulled from the study summarizes the key blindspot.

The results of the research indicated that fraternity and sorority members were significantly more engaged than non-members, reported greater gains in learning, and were more satisfied with their college experiences. Fraternity/sorority membership also indirectly improved learning gains, acting through higher levels of student engagement. Fraternity and sorority members reported having lower grades than non-members. . .

. . . However, follow-up tests revealed that these results could be the product of variables that were not included in the study. As a consequence, it was not possible to say with certainty that there were causal relationships between fraternity/sorority membership, student engagement, and college outcomes.(emphasis added)

  1. Back to the question of socioeconomic status - is a student who can afford the time and money commitment of membership in Greek Life more likely to be engaged on campus? Is a student with a family, a job, or who is generally not interested in extracurricular activities (say, a triple-major) less likely to be engaged in Student Affairs activities? Does this mean that schools should change the type of students they recruit, or that more students should join fraternities? We cannot know from this data, even though it is being used to promote the fraternity experience.

Online K-12 Education - K-12 Critical Skills Courses | EVERFI4 | Perspectives on Fraternity and Sorority Life; Positive Youth Development, EverFi

This was a study conducted by EverFi, a company that sells risk management products and services such as GreekLifeEDU and AlcoholEDU, with a grant from the NIC's Foundation for Fraternal Excellence (FFE). I watched the webinar (The latter 1/3 of which is a promotion for EverFi products) and it is attached to this article as a video.

What the NIC shares on its site from this study:

  • 1 in 5 students consider membership, but do not pursue membership because they're "too busy with academics" or have financial concerns. (I did not add those quotation marks)

  • Members spend significantly more time volunteering, mentoring, and doing other types of service work, and they feel like they belong in their communities.

  • Members feel a stronger connection to and are more engaged in their communities.

There are two additional points I want to share from EverFi's report before getting into blindspots:

  • 67% of nonmembers rarely or never engage with fraternity/sorority members.

  • The cost of membership was a greater barrier to entry for more students than concerns about hazing, alcohol use, the lack of diversity, or an overall poor impression of Greek Life.

The Blindspots:

  1. What factor does a student's socioeconomic status play in the positive results? (Is this question becoming too obvious?)

  2. The two additional points I chose to share support an argument I make in this article regarding diversity, inclusion, and accessibility and this article about the Abolish Greek Life initiative. The NIC highlights and (dismissively?) adds quotation marks around "too busy with academics." But cost is an equally important barrier to entry. In fact, it is a greater barrier to entry than hazing, perceived alcohol use, the perceived lack of diversity, or an overall poor impression (for college students, not necessarily their parents). Unfortunately, the cost of membership is not something that fraternity professionals take seriously. Schools implement Greek Life fees to hire more staff, the NIC is charging students for services that duplicate what chapters get from their headquarters, and "standards of excellence" programs at schools and in inter/national fraternities add significantly to the time commitment of membership.

The allure of "data-driven decision-making"

Our leader's obsession with data collection is likely here to stay. But knowledge and data alone cannot make decisions, particularly if that knowledge is limited to one component of a complex or amorphous topic or structure. This is why fraternity members should approach organizational data-gathering efforts with caution. The scope of data collected and the way it is presented is curated by a small group of people from start to finish.

Remember that saying, "He who pays the piper calls the tune"? Well, those who choose which data is worth collecting also choose what it means for them or their respective organizations. Does anyone think the NIC would report data that would threaten their revenue? For example, they do not promote the fact that fraternity/sorority members reported lower GPAs [Pike] or that Greek Life alumni reported higher levels of alcohol addiction [Gallup, 2014].

A personal example

I worked at the central office of my fraternity for about six years. In that time, I helped establish or re-establish 35 chapters of the fraternity. As we ramped up our growth efforts from 4 new chapters per year to 10 new chapters per year, the number of new chapters which were failing before receiving a charter was increasing at an alarming rate. So, the fraternity hired a consulting company to investigate the matter (friends of a staff member, as is often the case). The consultants interviewed alumni members, student members, founding members of new chapters, and campus professionals. They organized a retreat for the leaders of our growth team (me and two others).

One or two years later, as I was preparing a memo and presentation for one of our national board meetings, I received word that I could not include the raw data from the study as an attachment. Certain (and critical) findings were left out of the initial summary presented to the board. For example, there were concerns that we were growing too quickly, that new chapters were not being established with the proper volunteer support in place, and that our choice of school was driven by the need to expand and not the potential for success. Our strategic priority (at the time: 200 chapters by 2025) drove the decision-making, and the data was altered to maintain the illusion that such growth was possible. It was not insidious or evil, but it was typical. Failures are hard to swallow and easy to pin on someone else.

VCU paid thousands of dollars for advice it later ignored.

This self-serving use of "data" to validate existing beliefs showed in Virginia Commonwealth University's decision to indefinitely suspend fraternity/sorority recruitment activities. The school hired Dyad Strategies to conduct a culture assessment of its Greek Life community after the death of a fraternity new member, Adam Oakes. Findings from Dyad's assessment indicated that the cultural perceptions of fraternity/sorority members at VCU carried risk, but nothing necessarily worse than their peers. Still, VCU's leadership ignored recommendations from the external investigation they paid for and opted to indefinitely ban fraternities and sororities from recruiting.

Here's a question: Why pay a company as much as $22,000 if you are not going to take their findings and recommendations seriously?

I do not have the answer. Looking further into Dyad's assessment, the recommendations align with the services, products, and worldview of the company as a whole. This is not a secret (nor is it unusual or a cause for concern); their chief executive acknowledged as much in a letter written several years ago. So the studies operate as tools to place each school somewhere on a scale of "in line with certain practices/behaviors" or "not in line with certain practices/behaviors." The recommendations explain how to get closer to those "certain practices." In other words, one does not hire Dyad to support an effort to eliminate all rules.

Perhaps VCU hired independent investigators as a cover of sorts - using the most damning information from the independent report to justify decisions made well in advance of the Fall 2021 term. Plus, the school looks like they are going above and beyond the recommendations of a third party by enacting stricter penalties than were suggested in the independent report. Surely, the news media, the mourning parents, and the Abolish Greek Life crowd would find pleasure in that sort of tough talk.

I already mentioned that data-gathering efforts can do just as much to limit the scope and focus of a decision-maker as they can do to inform the decision-maker. For example, the leaders at VCU could have paid attention to the fact that 9 fraternities severed ties with Duke University in Spring 2021 after it placed arbitrary restrictions on fraternity recruitment at the request of the "Abolish Greek Life" crowd. The leaders of Duke and their Abolish Greek Life chapter(?) feigned surprise when the fraternities cut ties, but they too could have simply read the news to see that the same thing happened at schools from Ann Arbor, Michigan to Reno, Nevada. Was this readily available information considered when implementing the recruitment ban at VCU? Should VCU administrators be surprised if their fraternities disaffiliate and establish an independent fraternity council?

Closing Thoughts

The talking points pulled from any internally funded or marketing-oriented study are only talking points (no matter the form or quality of research performed). Moreover, high-quality research does not always result in good decisions, because there is more to a decision than a single and limited set of data.

  • The studies funded and shared by the NIC do not explain how or why fraternity members are better off than their peers. Furthermore, they do not shed light on whether the actions of organizations like the NIC and its member organizations are enhancing or inhibiting the perceived benefits of membership.

  • The Dyad Strategies investigation into the VCU fraternity/sorority community did not offer any rationale for the suspension of recruitment activities. VCU's actions indicate that they ignored easily accessible information as to how such actions worked at peer and peer-aspirant institutions.

Marketers love data and statistics because they add credibility to a marketer's assertions. But someone trying to get you to do or buy something cares more about you doing or buying something than being a credible source of information. "Data-driven" is a marketing term. It makes leaders and decision-makers appear thoughtful, practical, and honest, even if they are nothing of the sort.

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