Whiter & Wealthier: Who rushes and why
Ask a Princeton student to compare and contrast the University’s three sororities, and it’s entirely possible that this expression will come up.
Stereotypes surrounding Princeton’s sororities and fraternities are not uncommon on a campus with an unusual and often hostile relationship to its Greek organizations. While many of these — like the one mentioned above — are based on nothing more than students’ crude preconceptions, other stereotypes about the socioeconomic status and eating club affiliations of fraternity and sorority members have been supported by recent University surveys.
Members of Greek organizations are more likely to be white and wealthy than the general undergraduate population, according to the results of the Committee on Background and Opportunity (COMBO) surveys conducted May 2007 and April 2009. Roughly 88 percent of fraternity and sorority members are white, and 70 percent come from families with annual incomes greater than $150,000, according to COMBO survey results. Nearly 30 percent of students with family incomes greater than $500,000 are members of Greek organizations, the surveys found, compared to less than 10 percent of students with family income less than $150,000. And at those lower income levels, white students are significantly more likely to join Greek organizations than minority students.
“Those [students] who made the decision to participate in the Greek system were essentially engaging in organizations where they were going to meet people very similar to themselves,” President Shirley Tilghman said. “It looked and felt a lot like self-segregation. And that was a problem for us.”
The University administration refuses to recognize fraternities and sororities on campus, arguing, among other concerns, that the exclusive organizations are home to a disproportionately large number of white and wealthy students, and that they feed into specific bicker eating clubs. But former members of Princeton’s Greek organizations interviewed for this article insisted that they are no different from other exclusive extracurricular groups on campus, contending that they offer an opportunity for incoming freshmen to meet upperclassmen and for undergraduates to form lasting friendships.
Roughly 15 percent of students are members of fraternities or sororities at Princeton. There are about 400 undergraduate members of the three sororities on campus: Kappa Alpha Theta, Kappa Kappa Gamma and Pi Beta Phi. Each has between 120 and 140 members, according to data provided by Panhellenic Council president Kelsey Platt ’11. She also noted that the average GPA of sorority members is 3.47.
Princeton’s fraternities vary significantly in size, from 10 to 60 members. They include Alpha Epsilon Pi, Beta Theta Pi, Chi Phi, Delta Kappa Epsilon, Kappa Alpha, Phi Kappa Sigma, Pi Kappa Alpha, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, Sigma Chi and Zeta Psi.
“If you’re not part of an organized group — Triangle [Club], musical group, sports team — it’s sometimes tougher to find a network of girls you might become friends with,” said Erin Colledge ’03, a former president of Theta. “If you treat one organization one way and one organization another way, that seems wrong.”
But Tilghman said she sees a significant difference between Greek organizations and other exclusive extracurricular activities on campus that bring together students with similar interests and skills.
“If you go to a Triangle show, you will see the rainbow coalition on that stage,” she said. “You will see students who come out of very selective schools. You will see students who are coming out of public schools. You will see people of different ethnic groups. It looks like America.”
Sorority and fraternity members are required to pay dues to their chapters and national organizations that may range from $600 to $1,200 per year, alumni said.
An October 2007 analysis of the membership rolls of Princeton’s three sororities by the ‘Prince’ found that a majority of sorority members attended private high schools. Seventy-three percent of Pi Phi members went to a private high school, as did 68 percent of Theta members and 49 percent of Kappa members. Only 43 percent of all Princeton undergraduates attended private high schools.
No comparable statistics have been collected for fraternities.
“All you have to do is look at the frequency of financial aid students in fraternities and sororities versus not, and you can see that there’s a breakdown socioeconomically,” Tilghman said. “What is pulling people into fraternities and sororities is socializing. No quality, no talent, but social status.”
One major component of this social status is eating club membership, she added. “[Fraternities and sororities] serve as feeders to specific clubs,” she said. “Having the membership of specific eating clubs preordained in the first month of freshman year … really is problematic to me.”
Results from the COMBO II survey showed that 89 percent of students in Greek organizations participated in Bicker, compared to less than 40 percent of all other students. And nearly 70 percent of the fraternity and sorority members who bicker are accepted by their club, compared to only 48 percent of all other students who bicker.
Evan Baehr ’05, who joined Kappa Alpha in his freshman year and Cottage Club as a sophomore, said he is not concerned by the relationship between the Greek organizations and the eating clubs.
“Historically, certain fraternities have been strong feeders into certain eating clubs, and to me, this relationship makes complete sense,” he said, noting that almost all Kappa Alpha members joined Cottage when he was at Princeton. “Fraternities serve a sort of shadow purpose as an early stage eating club, and it only makes sense that you would continue these relationships in your social atmosphere once you are accepted into an eating club.”
Kappa Alpha members often join Cottage, while Sigma Alpha Epsilon members usually bicker Ivy Club or Tiger Inn, said David Wynne ’01, a former vice president of Kappa Alpha.
Alison Milam ’03, who served as president of Pi Phi and joined TI, said there was a natural movement within sororities to certain clubs, but she added that this does not restrict members’ options.
“Being in a sorority made me build relationships with older girls that I probably wouldn’t have had had I not been in a sorority, and being friends with those older girls exposed me to certain eating clubs more than others,” she said. “The same type of people who were drawn to my sorority was the same type of people who were drawn to my eating club. But I in no way felt my options were limited because of which sorority I was in.”
The October 2007 analysis by the ‘Prince’ also found strong connections between certain clubs and sororities, with three quarters of sorority sisters then on campus joining four bicker clubs. Twenty-five percent of upperclass sorority members were in Ivy, 21 percent were in TI, 14 percent were in Cottage and 14 percent were in Cap & Gown Club.
Within specific sororities, the correlations were even more pronounced. Roughly 41 percent of upperclass Pi Phi members were in TI, while 32 percent joined Ivy and 15 percent were in Cottage. Of Theta upperclassmen, 29 percent were members of Ivy, while 24 percent were in Cottage and 17 percent were in TI. Roughly 34 percent of Kappa upperclassmen joined Cap, while 26 percent were in Tower Club. And 22 percent of upperclass Kappa members were in sign-in clubs, compared to only 3 percent of upperclass Theta and Pi Phi members.
Kappa president Alexandra Wich ’11 declined to comment for this article. Theta president Addie Lerner ’11 and Pi Phi president Nell Diamond ’11 did not respond to requests for comment.
Frances Schendle ’06, a member of Theta and Ivy during her time on campus, said members of her pledge class joined a number of clubs.
“I never felt that I had to [bicker] a particular eating club because I was in that sorority, and I never felt like my chances of getting in were better because I was in that sorority,” she said. “People do encourage their friends to join certain eating clubs, and at the end of the day a Theta might be friends with a lot of Thetas, who encourage them to join their eating clubs.”
But Angela Covington ’03, who was president of Kappa and a member of Cap during her time on campus, said she did feel some sororities fed more into specific clubs than others.
“For Kappa, it split Cottage, Cap, TI, some Cloister — we were all over,” she said. “Some of the other sororities were definitely associated with other eating clubs. That was one of the things I like about Kappa. We had a diverse group of girls who ended up in different social groups. We didn’t just stick together all the time.”
Former Theta president Suzanna Sanchez ’04, who joined Cottage in her sophomore year, pointed out that many other extracurricular groups also feed into specific clubs.
“You go where your friends are, and a lot of Thetas ended up in a certain place, just like the football players ended up in a certain place,” she said.
Long-lasting friendships were one of the greatest benefits of joining the fraternities and sororities on campus, several alumni said.
“I didn’t know a lot of people when I got to Princeton, and I’m not an athlete,” Sanchez explained. “I didn’t have a way to really meet people … and joining a sorority seemed like a great way to do that.”
Fraternity and sorority members have long said that their organizations provide incoming freshmen with a chance to meet upperclassmen at the beginning of their college careers, as well as an opportunity for older students to serve as mentors.
“As a freshman and sophomore, the fraternity meant regular social events, great ways to meet other students and upperclassmen, regular formals and other activities, as well as access to or at least greater access to the eating clubs themselves,” Baehr explained.
John Burford ’12 said that had certainly been true during the four months he pledged Sigma Alpha Epsilon before dropping out of the pledge process in January of his freshman year.
“You come in as a freshman and you don’t know anybody — it’s sort of a built-in group of friends,” he said of the fraternity. “You don’t have to worry about bickering because you’re pretty much automatically in. You meet a lot of girls because there’s a lot of mixers and stuff. I knew there would be at least some hazing, so you figure you’re going to get some good stories. You come in, you’re an impressionable freshman.”
In a November 2003 interview with the ‘Prince,’ Tilghman said she hoped freshmen and sophomores would be able to form close friendships within their residential colleges. And the opening of Whitman College, she said, would “fulfill a request that fraternities and sororities provide — getting to live with and spend time with upperclassmen.”
Earlier this month, Tilghman called those efforts a “work in progress.”
“I think it’s now incumbent on us, the University, to be sure that there are lots of ways for freshmen to meet upperclassmen and to have those kinds of mentoring relationships,” she said. “I don’t think we are, yet, where we need to be in creating a sense of real community within the residential colleges. We talk about this all the time, about what more we need to be doing within the colleges to create that, because I don’t think we’ve succeeded yet.”
Tilghman also pointed out that, as soon as students join student organizations, they immediately meet upperclassmen who begin to serve as mentors.
“I don’t for a second believe that, in the absence of sororities, we would have thousands of women on this campus who can’t find their way around and meet upperclass women,” she said.
Colledge, who joined Theta her freshman year and later joined Cottage, said she wasn’t sure it was that easy.
“I think it might be more challenging than President Tilghman might think it is,” Colledge said. “If you’re not part of an organized group ... it’s sometimes tougher to find a network of girls you might become friends with.”
Often, those friendships extend past college as well.
“Theta was the vehicle that allowed me to meet my best friends in the world,” Sanchez said. “I didn’t have a team or a common bond with people. I am forever grateful that I was offered a bid with Theta.”
Baehr said he was joined by two of his Kappa Alpha pledge brothers when he started attending Harvard Business School last fall.
“Of the 14 pledge brothers, we are certainly in touch regularly,” Baehr said. “When we are all in New York, we make a point to get together, and we certainly gather at Reunions and have had several weddings of members as opportunities to get the troop together.”
But Baehr did not form lifelong bonds with just his fraternity brothers. During his first week at Princeton, in the fall of 2000, Baehr attended a mixer organized by Kappa Alpha and Theta. There, he met Kristina Scurry ’04 and, in the tradition of the old adage, decided to date a Theta. In August 2007, they were married.
This is the second article in a five-part series on Greek life at the University. Tomorrow: A look at the administration’s relationship with Greek organizations over the last decade.