Bills and barriers: Greek life, beyond the sticker price


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Last year, having a social life was more stress-inducing than carefree for Brittany.

For Brittany — a full financial aid student and College junior— paying sorority dues was more than a matter of asking her parents for money or digging into her own paycheck to make up the difference. While many of her peers didn’t think twice about going to BYOs and buying Fling tanks, Brittany had to keep careful tabs on all of her expenses.

“It definitely wasn’t something I could do on the side,” she said of Greek life. Brittany deactivated from the sorority in the middle of last semester after realizing that her lifestyle on an installed payment plan was not sustainable. “Greek life started to feel like a burden,” she said, “but a burden you pay for.”

But Greek leaders say that just like tuition isn’t $60,000 for everyone, the sticker price on sorority and fraternity membership isn’t necessarily the price that everyone pays. Forms of aid are available in Greek chapters across campus, ranging from partially or fully waiving national dues, to delaying payments until after a first paycheck.

Still, for students like Brittany, these options may not be enough.

In 2013, the Panhellenic Council gave scholarships to 12 sorority members, who received an average of $295 — about a quarter of the roughly $1,100 in dues that sororities charged initiated members that year on average. Penn charges an additional yearly $86 program fee, which provides funds for Greek governing organizations, supports staff salaries at the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life and pays for supplies for mailings. Members who do not live in a chapter house must pay another fee for the house’s upkeep.

The Interfraternity Council does not have a scholarship fund, and information on the costs of fraternity dues is not centralized.

And the informal costs of Greek life can quickly add up — from purchasing apparel, spending on BYOs and date nights to splurging on Big-Little Week.

Brittany did not apply for the Panhel scholarship or explore any potential forms of financial assistance within her own sorority chapter while in Greek life. She felt that the financial strain was not an issue that could be resolved semester by semester. She realized that a Greek experience at Penn just wasn’t financially possible.

Pressure to spend:

Dues cover all of the official costs of Greek life, but other expenses can build up, along with the pressure to spend.

Vice President of Finance at Alpha Chi Omega Sam Hernan, an Engineering senior, estimated the cost of attending a date night in her sorority — for which the tickets themselves are covered by dues — could be close to $100, including a new dress, a BYO beforehand and cab fare.

Hernan hypothesized that asking for help to pay for the optional costs of Greek life might be more difficult than asking for help with dues. As a result, Greeks with less money to spare may end up going to fewer social events and being left out of those aspects of Greek life.

Since she didn’t have money to spare, Brittany found herself trying to squeeze the fun out of every dime.

“People at Penn put a lot of pressure on having a big social scene,” Brittany said. “The more money you spend, the more fun you’re going to have.”

“You can’t do it casually if the money is a big deal for you,” she said of being in a sorority.

Brittany, like others interviewed for this article, asked that her real name not be used, to protect her privacy and to avoid negative feelings from former sorority sisters.

Kris, a College junior and former member of the Alpha Delta Pi sorority, agreed that no matter how flexible Greek life finances can be, members who do not have financial leeway might not feel fully at ease in the Greek environment.

“The whole Greek system is structured around the assumption that members have a lot of money,” Kris said.

“There are definitely ways that everybody can be a part of the system,” she said. “But whether that person will be comfortable being in that culture is not certain. But you could say that about Penn, too.”

Hernan, the AXO vice president of finance, guessed that most girls in her sorority do not feel the strain of dues and other expenses — although she believes AXO represents students of diverse financial backgrounds.

The costs of BYOs and apparel printed with organization logos are not unique to Greek life. The full cost of attending Penn doesn’t show up on a bursar bill. However, it is unclear whether students involved in Greek life tend to have greater means of supporting a robust social life than the typical Penn student.

Last school year, 31 percent of all undergraduate men and 28 percent of all undergraduate women joined fraternities or sororities, and 47 percent of undergraduate students received need-based financial aid. The Provost’s Office declined to provide information on the financial background of students in Greek life compared to non-Greeks, and no standard University reports include those statistics. Scott Reikofski, the director of the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life, said the office doesn’t collect financial data on individual members.

There is also no University-wide financial assistance program for Greek life.

“Participation in Greek life is optional, and as such, there is no specific pool or money for financial assistance with dues,” Reikofski said in an email. He noted that scholarships and payment plans are available through individual chapters and Panhel.

Some students in Greek life say it is possible to save money by being in a fraternity. When College senior Jimmy Germi, the president of the Interfraternity Council, lived off-campus last year, he paid about $4,000 more after utilities than he does living in his fraternity house this year. In addition, the meal plan his fraternity offers costs about half that of the University’s, and provides five lunches and four dinners per week.

Still, there are additional costs outside of dues and housing to consider. Hernan said that this year, some girls in her sorority spent over $1,000 in gifts for Big-Little Week, averaging roughly $500-$600, by her estimate.

Other current and former Greeks interviewed estimated more modest figures of $50-$200 as an average spending point for Big-Little Week.

But there are ways to minimize the cost of these purchases. Brittany bought extra merchandise throughout the semester to give to her future little. Others bought inexpensive gifts like candy and organized showy stunts like getting fraternity brothers to sing for their littles. Many girls get hand-me-down apparel and gifts from their lineage to give to its newest member.

Social media can generate competition during Big-Little Week that might translate into monetary expenses. “There’s pressure to keep up or out-do [other Bigs],” Hernan said.

College junior Seema Patel countered that pressure does not always necessitate action.

“Absolutely, social pressures probably do exist, but I don’t think that always translates into a girl’s spending behavior,” said Patel, director of finance of her sorority — which she asked not to be named. “More likely, other girls have the same issues and concerns as you do.”

A perceived barrier:

Many in the Greek community maintain that cost is only a perceived barrier to entering Greek life.

“Once you get involved in the Greek community, you see that there’s a lot of flexibility,” Germi said.

In AXO, for example, Hernan explained that “special status” membership is available to sisters who need financial assistance. This means that the chapter’s executive board can waive part or all of a member’s dues after assessing her financial need — no formal documentation is required.

Patel noted a similar form of assistance available through her sorority. If a member were planning to deactivate for financial reasons, the sorority could offer associate status in the chapter, meaning that the member would pay the same amount as an abroad member — about 20 percent of the usual amount — and pay for individual events she attends.

Although Hernan said her chapter is only supposed to grant a certain number of special status cases each semester, according to the national organization’s bylaws, AXO has been able to fulfill every request it has received since Hernan joined the board last semester.

“We can take the hit finance-wise,” Hernan said. The first area to take a cut would be social expenses, which has the largest budget. “If you’re thinking of $1,000 less we spend, that’s not that big of a deal.”

But for an emerging sorority on campus, Alpha Delta Pi, which colonized at Penn last spring, small fines and fees might be more important.

The sorority charges $10 for missing chapter meetings and anywhere from $10 to $100 for missing events without a valid excuse. This came as a surprise to Kris after she missed an event this semester. While she got her own $50 fee waived because she missed the event for work, ADPi leaders asked her to keep it quiet, saying the sorority uses the fines as a way to incentivize members to attend events.

ADPi President Taryn Seifert, a Nursing senior, said in an email that the sorority’s “fee structure and use of member-approved fines are typical for Greek organizations and are in line with other sororities on campus. Each member signs a document annually that acknowledges these fees.”

Hernan and Patel said that their sororities do not fine members who fail to attend chapter meetings or events, although Hernan has heard of this being a policy in other sororities, particularly around rush.

Kris, who deactivated shortly before Fall Break, said that there was a strong push to get dues in on time because of the constant need to create marketing tools and events to publicize the new sorority. She is currently communicating with the chapter officers in hopes that they will refund her dues for the semester — $672 — as they have for other people who have deactivated.

Lily, an Engineering junior and another former ADPi member, said that sorority leaders read out the names of members who are behind on payments in chapter meetings.

More established Greek chapters at Penn, on the other hand, have the option to turn to alumni when the chapter can’t cover all of the financial need members have. For example, Sigma Phi Epsilon can use internal funds to subsidize up to about 50-75 percent of the cost of a brother’s dues. But last year, a SigEp alumnus agreed to cover the full cost for a member who couldn’t afford it, Engineering junior and SigEp president Tadas Antanavicius said.

More often, he added, the board will allow for payments to be pushed back until a brother receives a paycheck for a summer internship — the second most common way to pay dues in his fraternity. The first most common source of money to pay dues is parents and the third is student loans. Some members take out loans even if they are financially stable, in order to have extra cash during the semester. The sense of job security innate to Penn undergraduates helps students justify taking out loans to pay for Greek life, Antanavicius said.

While an alumni network is often seen as a draw for Greek life, it may not be what justifies the cost at Penn.

“Greek life at Penn isn’t necessarily about being in this deep sisterhood like it is in the South,” Hernan said, but is more about the experiences while on campus. Antanavicius agreed, saying that if brothers are thinking of dues purely “as an investment in the network, they’re probably not enjoying the brotherhood.”

Financial assistance in Greek life is not exclusively a formal affair. Germi, the IFC president, recalled a recent incident in his own fraternity, Phi Delta Theta, where brothers pitched in some extra cash to subsidize another brother’s vacation in return for him planning the trip.

Last year in Alpha Delta Phi, a small co-ed fraternity of fewer than a dozen members, dues were raised by $50 to cover two students who could not afford to pay the $150 chapter fee, plus the one-time $300 fee to the national organization. “Most didn’t protest because dues were so low to start with,” said Engineering senior Max Morant, the fraternity’s co-president. ADPhi can afford to keep dues this low because it is currently an affiliate of the national organization, rather than a full chapter, and does not have a house.

While it is clear that financial assistance is present within Greek life, Germi worries that this is not clear to those outside of the Greek community. “I think a lot of people aren’t actually aware of dues prior to rush, which I actually think is a flaw of the system,” Germi said.

Even at the sticker price, however, Antanavicius argues that being a part of Greek life is invaluable.

“It’s making my college experience,” he said. “That’s something I’d be willing to pay a lot of money for.”


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