In recent years, fraternities and sororities have become synonymous with partying, often to extremes: reports of binge drinking and sexual assault have led some schools, including Harvard and Penn State, to discuss banning Greek life altogether. Yet in their early days, fraternities and sororities served a more practical purpose.
At issue was a housing crunch. In the 19th century, as universities expanded their offerings, there wasn’t enough living space for the influx of new students, says Nicholas L. Syrett, author of The Company He Keeps: A History of White College Fraternities. The first frat houses, like the one built in 1876 at the University of California, Berkeley, offered a fix. By allowing students to live in those spaces, colleges could enroll more students without investing in housing. Syrett found that 774 such houses existed by 1920.
The houses kept students sheltered figuratively too. When women arrived in larger numbers on campuses in the late 1800s, the earliest sororities–like Kappa Alpha Theta, founded at what’s now DePauw University in 1870–allowed them to follow Victorian social mores by living apart from men.
Over time, various issues became apparent: the houses were a way for students to separate themselves, and in practice that often meant that wealthy white Protestant students got exclusive accommodations. In some cases, students excluded from these societies formed groups of their own.
These days students are drawn to Greek life for a variety of reasons. But the houses themselves aren’t exactly the problem solvers they promised to be.
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This appears in the September 18, 2017 issue of TIME.