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Greiff: Fraternities make you dumber, and may kill you too

Published: Friday, Dec. 20, 2013 11:26 p.m. CST

A 19-year-old freshman at Baruch College in New York just wanted to join a fraternity. So, along with a bunch of his future brothers, he headed earlier this month to rural Pennsylvania, where he died of a head injury in a barbaric initiation ritual, which entailed being blind folded and carrying a backpack loaded with sand while being shoved and pummeled in the freezing dark.

A few weeks earlier, another 19-year-old pledge at a fraternity known as Gobbler House at Wilmington College in Ohio was subjected to a different, but equally brutal ceremony, which included lashings with knotted towels. He was lucky: He only lost a testicle.

By now, the horrors of hazing at fraternities (not to mention sexual assaults) are well known, and offer persuasive reasons for colleges and universities to distance themselves. But research provides another reason: fraternities make students dumb – or at least dumber than their classmates. That isn’t only at odds with the goal of higher education itself, but also a depressing departure from the original purpose of fraternities, which was to make students smarter.

Most of the research about fraternities and academic performance comes to the same conclusion: Membership in a fraternity is consistent with lower grades and diminished intellectual capacity. (Sororities are a different story; researchers haven’t found an equally strong link between membership and grades.)

Just why the link exists is the subject of speculation. Here’s a possibility: Maybe it’s because fraternity members drink so much alcohol? One study by the Harvard University School of Public Health found that 86 percent of students who live in fraternity houses were binge drinkers, almost double the rate of other students.

Another theory: Time that could be used for studying is spent on fraternity activities, especially during the periods when aspiring members are undergoing humiliation or torture in disgusting or inane initiation rites.

Yet another possibility is that fraternity members skip more classes than other students, and lost class time tends to correlate with lower grades. Think excessive drinking plays a role there?

And it isn’t just in terms of grades that fraternity members lag behind their peers. Fraternity membership also stunts intellectual development, according to George Kuh, Ernest Pascarella and Henry Wechsler, three professors who have studied the so-called Greeks and their members’ academic performance.

The three cite research conducted at 18 four-year colleges showing that “even after controlling for differences in such factors as pre-college cognitive development, academic motivation, age, and selectivity of the college attended – fraternity men are well behind their non-member counterparts in cognitive development after the first year of college.’’ The ability to think critically was a particularly weak area for frat members.

What’s sad is how far the organizations have strayed from their original, noble intentions. The first U.S. fraternity was Phi Beta Kappa, which got smart a long time ago and stopped being a fraternity to become an academic-honors society. Most other fraternities were started as literary and debating clubs, or to promote character and personal development, and evolved into something else.

It may not be just academic and intellectual achievement that suffers from fraternity membership. College sports teams are starting to discourage players from joining frats, a wariness that extends to the National Football League: Just three of the 254 players picked in the latest draft belonged to fraternities.

Maybe there is a place for fraternities as hothouses for future alcoholics who engage in sometimes violent behavior. Because the ethos so many of them cultivate is at odds with learning and scholarship, though, that place should be far away from a college campus.

• James Greiff is a Bloomberg View editorial board member. Follow him on Twitter @JamesGreiff.

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