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Fraternities and Sororities,associations, mainly of college or university students and alumni, established to further the social, academic, professional, or humanitarian interests of members. Fraternities and sororities are often referred to as Greek-letter societies because they are almost always designated by letters of the Greek alphabet.

Fraternities started out in colonial America as literary and debating societies for students. Sororities came into existence later, in the mid-19th century. The word fraternity comes from the Latin word frater, meaning “brother”; the word sorority comes from the Latin word soror, meaning “sister.” There are four types of Greek-letter organizations: social, professional, academic or honorary, and service. Of these, social Greek-letter organizations are the best known and most numerous.

Today, only a small percent of college students are members of social fraternities and sororities. About 5 percent of all college students belong to social Greek-letter societies. At four-year colleges, about 7 percent are members. The number of members varies from campus to campus. Some campuses don’t have any, while at others more than half the students are members.

Social fraternities and sororities select their members from the student body without regard to academic major or field of study. Social fraternities and sororities restrict membership to a single sex and often consist of persons with similar religious backgrounds or ethnicity.

Social Issues

Fraternities, and to a lesser extent, sororities have faced three troubling social problems: hazing, alcohol and other drug abuse, and sexual harassment.

Hazing is the practice of initiating pledges into fraternity membership by having them perform difficult, humiliating, or dangerous tasks. Examples include requiring pledges to drink excessive quantities of alcohol, consume large quantities of food, or submit to beatings with a paddle. Deaths and serious injuries attributed to hazing have prompted most states to enact laws specifically prohibiting it. In the 1990s leaders of Greek organizations have responded to these problems by eliminating or drastically shortening the pledge period, which has lessened, but not eliminated, the problem. About 70 to 90 chapters per year are suspended by national fraternity organizations because of hazing violations. Individual colleges and universities may also suspend or disband fraternity chapters in the aftermath of hazing incidents.

Studies have shown that members of fraternities and sororities drink substantially more alcohol than nonmembers. They also experience more of the problems associated with alcohol abuse, including serious illness, violence, and sexual assault. Fraternities have had an ongoing problem with sexual harassment—and sometimes rape—of women, partially associated with heavy drinking. A 1994 study by Harvard University called fraternities and sororities “functional saloons.” The study, published in the Journal of American Medical Association, reported that 86 percent of men and 80 percent of women who live in fraternities and sororities are binge drinkers, consuming four or more drinks in a row at least once every two weeks.


Fraternities and sororities date back to the American colonial era. During that period, colleges focused almost exclusively on teaching the classics (Greek and Latin literature) and promoting religious piety, rather than liberal arts (science, history, and literature) or applications of learning such as engineering and agriculture. In response, students created their own outlets to debate the intellectual and political ideas of their time. The early debating societies took on names that reflected classical thinkers or ideas.

In 1776 Phi Beta Kappa became the first society to identify itself with Greek letters. Founded at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, Phi Beta Kappa displayed many of the characteristics associated with today’s Greek-letter fraternities: the mystery of secrecy, various rituals, an oath of loyalty, a secret grip, a motto, a badge, and a strong bond in friendship and sense of community. During the late 18th century many of these literary societies had better and more extensive libraries than the colleges where they were located.

During the 19th century, Greek-letter literary societies declined in popularity as colleges diversified their curriculums and expanded their libraries. At the same time, social fraternities experienced explosive growth on American college campuses. Instead of filling a void in the school’s curriculum, the social fraternity, or social club, sought to address the social and emotional needs of students. The first social fraternity, Kappa Alpha, was established on the campus of Union College in Schenectady, New York, in 1825.

The first social sorority got its start in 1851 by women at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia. The women founded the Adelphean Society, which later became a Greek-letter sorority, Alpha Delta Pi. Other early Greek-letter sororities for women included Pi Beta Phi, established in 1867 at Monmouth College, in Monmouth, Illinois, and Kappa Alpha Theta, established in 1870 at DePauw University (formally Indiana Asbury College) in Greencastle, Indiana.

Until the 20th century, most fraternities and sororities excluded African American students. The movement to create organizations for African American students began in 1906 with the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity at Cornell University. Two years later, the first sorority for African American women, Alpha Kappa Alpha, was established at Howard University. Members of African American Greek-letter organizations sought to help other black students develop to their full potential in a mutually supportive atmosphere. Historically, the founding principles of African American Greek organizations included service to their community, academic achievement, and creation of cultural and social outlets for students.