What to know before pledging a fraternity or sorority

(CNN)As America's colleges send out acceptance letters this season, a new crop of students will ask themselves a big question: Should I go Greek?

More US undergraduates than ever, about 800,000, currently are members of fraternities and sororities. Many of them give back to their communities through volunteer work and rely on their network of brothers and sisters for lifelong friendships and professional connections. Still, it's a serious question -- after four fraternity pledge-related deaths last year put hazing under intense national scrutiny.
Penn State sophomore Tim Piazza, 19, died after drinking a large amount of alcohol during his first night of pledging the Beta Theta Pi fraternity. Three other students at three separate schools also lost their lives last year in alleged fraternity hazing incidents: Louisiana State University freshman Maxwell Gruver, Florida State University student Andrew Coffey and Texas State University's Matthew Ellis.
All four of the schools responded by suspending Greek activities on their campuses.
    The tragedies "really changed the narrative around the future of Greek life," said Kevin Kruger, president of NASPA, Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education. It triggered a "zero tolerance" attitude among many school presidents when it comes to "some of these more abhorrent behaviors," Kruger said. "Historically, there may have been some hesitancy about taking on the Greek system, but whatever hesitancy that might have existed has now gone away."
    This spring, the North-American Interfraternity Conference, or NIC, which represents 66 fraternities, launched a pilot program to work with colleges to "reduce hard alcohol from the fraternity experience" and provide more academic balance. "We are seeing commitment and collaboration from fraternities to address problems at unprecedented levels," NIC spokeswoman Heather Kirk said in an e-mail.
    Every year news headlines report new allegations linking college students -- including fraternity members -- with acts of sexual misconduct, suggesting deep problems in some areas. But there's also plenty of evidence that the Greek system helps members become better men and women through scholastic achievement, career advancement and community service.

    Students are still interested in Greek life

    Fraternity and sorority membership appears to be trending up. In 2016, the latest year for which data are available, 12.8% of freshmen who responded to a national survey conducted by the University of California, Los Angeles, said there was a "very good chance" they would join a social fraternity or sorority. That was an increase of nearly 2 percentage points from the 2015 survey.
    During the 2015-2016 academic year, about 384,200 undergraduates belonged to fraternities nationwide, according to the NIC. New members numbered about 99,800. There were 6,233 fraternity chapters on about 800 college campuses.
    New members in US sororities during the 2016-2017 academic year numbered about 145,600, according to the National Panhellenic Conference, or NPC. Total undergraduate sorority membership was more than 418,000.
    Greek life is linked to high grades and community service. According to the NIC, the all-fraternity grade point average in the 2013-2014 academic year was 2.912 out of 4, compared with all men nationwide, whose average GPA was 2.892. Fraternity undergrads served 3.8 million hours in local communities, the NIC said, and fraternity chapters raised $20 million for philanthropic causes.

    The Greek system is as old as America

    Americans have been joining Greek-letter organizations since 1776, when Phi Beta Kappa was founded at the College of William and Mary.
    Other organizations, such as the Kappa Alpha Society, sprouted at Northeastern colleges during the first half of the 19th century.
    The first Greek letter group for women, Kappa Alpha Theta, began in 1870. Many students joined these groups as a way to gain an instant circle of friends.

    Historically divided by race

    In the beginning, membership in Greek organizations was segregated across racial and ethnic lines. The first fraternities were all white, and none of them admitted African-Americans until the mid-20th century.
    The first Greek fraternity for African-American men, Alpha Phi Alpha, formed in 1906 at Cornell University. Its first non-black member joined in the 1940s. Sigma Alpha Mu, when it was formed in 1909, was open only to Jews; starting in 1953, the fraternity allowed any man "of good moral character" to join.
    Little data is available about the current racial makeup of American fraternities, but Princeton is an exception. The school gathered demographic information in 2009 and 2010 that showed students who are white and from higher income families are more likely to go Greek. About 77% of Princeton sorority members and 73% of fraternities were white, while the entire student body was only about 48.8% white.

    Is there hazing in sororities?

    In sororities, problematic hazing sometimes involves heavy drinking "but in no way, shape or form does it match what happens in male fraternities," said Hank Nuwer, who's been tracking reports of hazing at US colleges for decades. But, he added, "if it's less serious, it doesn't mean it's acceptable."
    In a written statement, NPC chairman Carole Jones said both men and women bear responsibility in the "fight against hazing, alcohol abuse and dangerous party cultures on college campuses. Our aim is to build partnerships with our student life colleagues and with industry leaders that lead to sustainable solutions to these vexing challenges."

    Accusations of sexual misconduct

    Sexual assault on college campuses has been a problem for generations, and news stories over the years about fraternity members engaging in sexual misconduct have put the fraternity system under a microscope. Cornell University put Zeta Beta Tau on probation after finding out its members had set up a contest in which new members would earn points for sleeping with women, according to the school's website.
    A 2007 study by researchers at the College of William and Mary found that fraternity men were three times more likely to commit rape than other men on college campuses. The study's authors compared the rates of sexual assault among men who joined fraternities to the rates of sexual assault among men who did not join fraternities.

    A pricy social network

    Supporters say Greek life can offer young students a strong social support network and a more structured lifestyle. Greek organizations often lead to strong lifelong friendships. Greek connections can help forge important professional connections that can propel new graduates into successful career paths. The NIC boasts that nearly half of all US Presidents belonged to fraternities.
    Obviously, students can accomplish all these things without belonging to a fraternity or a sorority, which comes at a cost.
    The price tag for joining a fraternity or sorority varies widely, depending on the school and the organization, experts say, ranging from a few hundred dollars per semester to several thousand. Sometimes fees include room and board. Often, fees are required for members who choose not to live in fraternity or sorority houses.

    Hazing: Looking for solutions

    Kruger, whose group represents student affairs professionals nationwide, believes there are still many good reasons to join a fraternity or sorority.
    "The very best parts of Greek life -- creating a social experience and giving back to the community -- are really positive, but not enough to outweigh student deaths," Kruger said. "In my opinion, the current system is not sustainable in the next 20 years unless colleges and universities, as well as students, do some things to fix it."
    How can hazing be stopped? Nuwer, who also teaches at Indiana's Franklin College, offered a four-point solution:
    • outlaw alcohol at all Greek houses and functions;
    • outlaw all forms of hazing -- even minor forms, such as forcing pledges to enter the house through the back door;
    • extend or defer rush periods to allow candidates to get to know the fraternity members better before they join;
    • eliminate pledging and accept as full members any candidate who is offered a bid.
    "Parents will need to be more proactive" about rooting out hazing, Nuwer said. As for students: They will have to be more transparent about their activities if real change is going to happen.
    Nuwer says he often hears from parents who acknowledge their children are undergoing minor hazing.
    "They say, 'It's just a little bit -- it's not going to get worse.' Then I don't hear from them again." he said. "That makes me worry."