Sophomore Christina Lim has gone to the University of Minnesota for three years, but has yet to find a close group of friends. Emma Allison is transferring in as a junior. Amanda Schwartz, a freshman from California who chose the U because she wanted a Big Ten school, admits she’s feeling a bit disoriented by the lack of familiar faces.
The three decided to see if joining a sorority could help them create the college experience they envision.
Though they might not know it, they’re part of a resurgence of Greek life on campus.
Until fairly recently, participation in sororities and fraternities at the university had been dwindling for decades. In fact, Minnesota slipped to the bottom of the Big Ten in Greek participation. Two sororities and a fraternity folded their chapters and left campus.
That decline was arrested in the early 2000s, and since then, the numbers have pushed significantly higher. This year, a record 752 young women took part in what used to be called “rush” and is now called “recruitment.” The U’s administration endorsed a growth plan that calls for the addition of 1,000 new Greek members over the next five years. And for the first time in 30 years, a new sorority is recruiting on campus this fall, and another will arrive next year.
“We’ve seen a steady increase in interest,” said Matt Levine, director of the office of fraternity and sorority life. “Greek students are active and engaged. They come in and want to be connected; they’re good for campus life.”
The renewed interest in sororities and a fraternities is being driven by more than students’ need to make friends: Group-oriented millennials, eager to succeed, are using the campus organizations to help them develop skills and build networks.
Delaney Reger is one of them.
“I found a place where I fit in and a group that I connect with,” said the incoming junior from Burnsville.
As president of Kappa Kappa Gamma, she’s occupied with much more than fraternity formals and parties. Her duties include overseeing the boards, budgets and committees that run the house and the sorority.
“It changed me,” she said of her involvement in the sorority. “I didn’t see myself as a leader, but I do now.”
For their part, sororities and fraternities are trying to change, as well. In an effort to distance themselves from the “Animal House” era of hazing and partying, they now stress philanthropic ventures, GPA requirements and connecting with alumni mentors.
In addition to their signature mascots, colors and symbols, every Greek organization on campus is connected with a state or national nonprofit, and all members devote regular hours to the organizations. Charities range from those that serve the vision-impaired to those promoting literacy or supporting at-risk youths.
Alpha Phi’s cause of choice is women’s heart health. The sorority raised $50,000 for those efforts last year.
“Being involved pushes us to think about others,” said Alpha Phi President Jenny Wolf, a senior journalism major from Fargo. “Plus, we had speakers who came in and educated us about heart health. It’s the No. 1 killer of women, so it’s important to know how we can help.”
Made for millennials
With a student enrollment of about 50,000, the sheer size of the university is the top reason cited by students who go Greek. Members say they like the familiarity of loyal peers and the built-in organizational infrastructure in the midst of the expansive campus.
But the campus organizations seem to have a unique appeal to this generation of students.
“There are lots of reasons the Greek system makes sense to millennials,” said Katie Elfering, 31, who analyzes the generation for Iconoculture, a Minneapolis-based market research firm.
“Right from the start, they’ve been group-oriented, with play dates and day care,” she said. “They seek out niches and ways to personalize every experience; this generation finds a way to make everything their own. Joining a sorority or fraternity would be a way to make a large institution smaller.”
Today’s students also want to make the most of their college years.
In recruiting new members, Greek organizations always cite the power of a national network of sisters or brothers and the link to plugged-in alums.
Jean Twenge, a Minnesota native and psychology professor at San Diego State University, said that holds enormous appeal to today’s students, who will come into an uncertain post-recession workplace while often carrying a crushing debt.
“This generation rates financial success higher than boomers or Gen X’ers did,” said Twenge, who has written two bestselling books on the under-35 set. “In the annual American freshman survey from the fall of 2012, 81 percent of those entering college said they want to be ‘very well off financially.’ That’s the all-time high since the survey began in 1966. It’s still a challenging environment for getting started in careers, and they may think the Greek system can help them reach their goals.”
Connection at a cost
Of course, belonging comes at a price.
Levine said social membership in sororities and fraternities typically runs between $1,200 and $1,500 per semester for students who don’t live in their organization’s residence. He put the cost of sorority or fraternity houses — including dues, room, board and often a parking place — at around $7,500 for nine months, which puts it in line with the cost of a dorm bed or campus-area apartment.
Living in a chapter house has long been a central part of Greek life.
“I’ve loved living in the house,” said Julia Gross, a senior Delta Gamma and president of the Panhellenic Council, which governs Greek life. “Waking up with my best friends who share my values, studying together, working out. These are great times and will make great memories.”
But that, too, may be changing. While the U’s fraternity houses still have space to accommodate more members, the 10 sororities have more members than they have beds.
“What it means to belong to a sorority or fraternity is evolving,” said Levine. “Housing is not mandatory. We have to get creative with programming to find new ways to build the feelings of sisterhood and brotherhood so that more students can have this experience.”
Kevyn Burger is a freelance writer and a newscaster at BringMeTheNews.com.