TIME Opinion

Before You Pick a College, Decide If You Want to Go Greek

Fraternity house exterior
John Greim—LightRocket via Getty Images Fraternity house exterior

Why deciding whether to join a fraternity or sorority should be a major part of the college selection process

As the college acceptances roll in over the next few weeks, kids and parents will be making some tough decisions about which school to pick: city or country? Big school or small school? Close to home or far away?

But there’s a major consideration that few kids take seriously, one that’s almost as important as financial aid and academic opportunity. Lost in the frenzy about dorm style and class size and sports ranking is one factor that could have an enormous effect on you for the next four years: Greek life.

The truth is, deciding to join a fraternity or sorority is as much about the campus dynamic as it is about a student’s own preferences. At a campus with a prominent Greek scene, so much of the social scene is dominated by fraternities and sororities that deciding not to join may have social consequences. That’s why students should decide how they feel about Greek life before they pick a campus, not after.

Because once you get to school, it may feel like that decision has been made for you. On a heavily Greek campus, choosing not to join can affect your housing and dining options as well as your social life. At many schools, the choice is virtually nonexistent: at University of Texas Pan-American, 100% of women on campus are in sororities and 99% of men are in fraternities, at Washington and Lee University, 82% of men and women go Greek. This kind of overwhelming majority is rare, but Greek life can still feel pervasive even at campuses with far lower rates of enrollment: at the University of Oklahoma, which has recently been embroiled in scandal over a racist chant sung by frat brothers, only 26% of male students are in frats.

True, the vast majority of people who participate in Greek life are thoughtful, productive members of society with no interest in racist chants or hazing anybody to death. Most fraternities and sororities were originally founded as philanthropic organizations, and many still make enormous contributions to their communities. But as we’ve seen recently, it can take just a few bad apples to change the way fraternity members behave as a group.

Going Greek can be risky business. In the last two weeks, five national fraternity chapters have been suspended for unethical and possibly illegal behavior. First, Sigma Alpha Epsilon frat brothers at University of Oklahoma were taped singing a racist chant that resulted in the suspension of the chapter and the expulsion of two members. Then, the Penn State chapter of Kappa Delta Rho was suspended after police found a secret Facebook page full of pictures of nude, passed out women– an incident which could lead to criminal charges. The University of South Carolina chapter of Pi Kappa Alpha was suspended Wednesday after the suspicious death of a student, the same day the University of Houston closed its Sigma Chi chapter after allegations of hazing. And last week, Washington & Lee suspended their chapter of Phi Kappa Psi over allegations that frat brothers hazed pledges with tasers. And that’s not even getting started on the sexual assault statistics: multiple studies have shown that men who join fraternities are statistically more likely to commit rape than men who don’t.

You might be thinking: how could anybody behave like that? But when you join a Greek organization, personal responsibility can get diluted into the group mindset. “People lose their sense of individuality when they become a member of a group,” explains Dr. Brad Bushman, a professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State University. “Although a group is comprised of individuals, the individuals don’t necessarily think for themselves.”

Even Will Ferrell, a former brother of Delta Tau Delta who played an overgrown frat boy in the movie Old School, thinks fraternities are problematic. “The incident in Oklahoma, that is a real argument for getting rid of the system altogether, in my opinion, even having been through a fraternity,” he said in a Q&A with the New York Times. “Because when you break it down, it really is about creating cliques and clubs and being exclusionary.”

And if you want to avoid that atmosphere, your best bet might be to avoid campuses where the Greek scene rules–the Princeton Review lists the schools that have the most Greek life, and US News & World Report lists the schools with the highest percentage of students in frats and sororities.

But even on campuses where fewer than half the students rush, Greek life can feel ubiquitous. “Going into school I didn’t really have any exposure to Greek life,” says Dylan Tucker, a senior psychology major at Cornell University who chose not to rush a frat. “But once I got here, I was a little bit surprised at how prominent Greek life was, how many people who were in frats.” At Cornell, only 27% of men are in fraternities, but it can feel like much more than that.

Tucker was able to make friends through the basketball scene, but he says if you’re not in a frat, it can be hard to meet people unless you participate in another activity. “If you don’t plan on being in a frat or sorority, people should be aware that it can affect your ability to make friends,” he says. “If you’re going to a school that has a very prominent Greek life, be aware that you will be excluded from a lot of events and things.”

So when it comes to going Greek, you can be damned if you do, damned if you don’t: joining can lead to risky situations, but resisting can feel isolating. That’s why you should decide on Greek life before you decide on a campus, so the choice is actually up to you.

Your browser is out of date. Please update your browser at http://update.microsoft.com