Skip to Main Content

Fraternities, Sororities & Alcohol: Drinking & Greek Life

Fraternities’ reputations as bastions for heavy drinking and reckless behavior has been around nearly as long as they have.

A Drinking Culture at Universities

If colleges are guilty of having unhealthy binge drinking cultures, Greek life seems to take this culture one step further. Many fraternities and sororities ritualize binge drinking. There is also a hierarchical element, in which newer members or pledges are compelled to drink by more senior members.

We know that one of the contributing factors to young people’s drinking is their beliefs about their peers’ drinking practices. By normalizing heavy drinking within Greek life, members of fraternities and sororities can come to believe that their drinking practices are common among people their age when actually their drinking is outside of the norm.

Efforts to limit binge drinking among fraternities have been relatively unsuccessful

College binge drinking has proved to be a stubbornly intractable problem despite millions of dollars of research and decades of efforts.  The problems of drinking in fraternities and sororities have proven to be even more stubborn than those in the population at large. In fact, studies have found that fraternity members may be more likely to drink following an intervention aimed at reducing drinking. Researchers hypothesize that if fraternity members “view alcohol use as a means to achieve their social and sexual goals, attempts to manage drinking may be ineffective.”

Why Do Fraternities Remain So Powerful?

In the face of so many tragedies and such clear evidence that Greek life contributes to out-of-control drinking and dangerous incidents, how have fraternities and sororities remained so central to campus life?

Force for Good

Fraternities argue that their staying power is explained by the amount of good that they do in developing leaders and providing formative experiences for young men. An astonishing number of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, congressmen and male senators, and American presidents have belonged to fraternities. They also donate millions of dollars and countless hours of service to their communities.

Interdependence of Universities and Fraternities

However, the answer is much more complicated than this simple explanation. For one thing, universities rely on fraternities much more than they might like to acknowledge. Today, one in eight students at four-year colleges in the U.S. lives in a Greek house, and the collective value of these houses across the country is estimated at $3 billion. As Caitlin Flanagan explains in her excellent Atlantic expose,  “Greek housing constitutes a troubling fact for college administrators (the majority of fraternity-related deaths occur in and around fraternity houses, over which the schools have limited and widely varying levels of operational oversight) and also a great boon to them (saving them untold millions of dollars in the construction and maintenance of campus-owned and -controlled dormitories).”

Political and Legal Power

Having faced opposition through their entire history, fraternities have become quite resourceful at protecting themselves from elimination or bankruptcy through legal challenges, becoming an extremely well-resourced and politically powerful interest group.

The powerful and well-funded political-action committee that represents fraternities in Washington has fought successfully to ensure that freedom-of-association language is included in all higher-education reauthorization legislation, thus “disallowing public Universities the ability to ban fraternities.”

Families Often Financially Responsible

National fraternities have invested in huge insurance policies, and have also become masters of distancing themselves from the conduct of their members. Fraternities have created policies following crisis incidents that often lead individual members to incriminate themselves and allow the fraternity to escape unscathed. While some argue that this rightly places blame on the offending individual, it seems to miss the systemic problem in which fraternities are clearly implicated. As a leading attorney for plaintiffs in cases involving Greek life explains, often the parents of students implicated in civil lawsuits end up paying out, and in particular their homeowner’s insurance policies. The fraternity often ends up paying nothing.

What to Do If Your Child Is Involved in Greek Life at College?

Knowing all the risks involved in Greek life, what do parents do if their child is still expressing an interest?

  • Talk to them about drinking and consent

Don’t let the only messages your child gets about alcohol use and sexual consent come from their young and inexperienced peers.

  • Consider not paying membership fees

While college is a time for your son or daughter to flex their independence, and they may choose to join a fraternity or sorority in spite of your protestations, this does not mean you need to foot the bill. Requiring them to have “skin in the game” means they will consider carefully how important being part of Greek life is to them.

  • Understand your own liability

Re-read the above paragraph about families’ financial responsibility in cases of a lawsuit and be sure you understand the ways that you may yourself be at risk in a worst-case scenario.

  • Don’t bail your child out of every scrape

While fraternities can breed bad decisions and entitlement in any young man, the worst combination seems to be those who got the message that there were no consequences for their actions – if they wrecked a car, their parents swooped in and bought a new one. Got a failing grade? A parent would call their teacher to address it. If young people do not experience the consequences of their actions, it only makes sense that they would internalize the message that they never will. This encourages reckless behavior by removing healthy inhibition.

Treatment for Binge Drinking at College

It is a common belief that young people will simply outgrow their binge drinking. While this may be true for some, for others Greek culture may be masking a more serious drinking problem. While their peers may be able to stop drinking once removed from that culture, a certain subset will continue to drink heavily. They may be struggling with addiction or using alcohol to cope with underlying issues. Without proper treatment, this can be very dangerous. If you are concerned that you or your loved one has a problem with drinking or drug use, seek a professional opinion. Sandstone Care’s experienced and professional team can help you determine whether treatment is right for you or your loved one. Call (888) 850-1890 now for a confidential consultation.