Gaylord, who graduated from UNC in 2014, started working her freshman year to pay off the imminent cost of her membership, which averages $4,486 a year for new UNC Panhellenic Council sorority members. But the sorority ended up being too expensive to join, so she withdrew from recruitment.
“The cost is really hard to justify,” Gaylord said. “Out-of-state tuition and an expensive sorority lifestyle. (The sorority was) super accommodating, but they did say I was the first person to drop in a long time.”
That was in 2010. UNC’s Panhellenic Council has since added three $500 scholarships this year, an amount which would only cover about 10 percent of some sororities’ dues.
“We were looking for women who were exemplary in the community,” said Adair Clark, Panhellenic’s vice president for finance. More than 50 have applied for the scholarships. “We know sometimes the cost of dues can be worrisome and this was a way to mitigate the dues.”
For a Panhellenic sorority member who lives in a house with a meal plan included, the most expensive membership is $8,600. For a member of a Interfraternity Council fraternity who lives in a house with a meal plan included, the most expensive membership is $10,500.
Room and board for students at UNC costs $10,592, according to an estimate from UNC for 2014-15.
As the two Greek entities that offer housing and meal plans — which can steepen the cost of membership — Panhellenic and IFC chapters offer ample scholarships or payment plans to lessen the financial burden.
Still, Gaylord didn’t find scholarships were well-published.
“It wasn’t to my knowledge that the girls or many of the girls came from low-income families,” Gaylord said. “I don’t think that’s where they would choose to put their limited funds. My impression is students with financial burden don’t seek out Greek life.”
UNC doesn’t keep track of the socioeconomic background of Greek members. Other colleges, such as Princeton University, have studied the financial backgrounds of their Greek students.
As a large public school in the South, the costs of UNC’s Greek life is not much different from other large public universities. More traditional Southern schools, such as the University of Alabama, cost a few hundred dollars more.
The average total cost of sororities is $1,481.46 as of fall 2014, according to a study by Omega Fi, which works with Greek chapters on finances. Fraternities average $1,359.63 in total costs, according to the same study based on 2,500 sorority and fraternity chapters in the country.
The cost of membership hasn’t risen much throughout the years, said Mandy Pierce, Omega Fi’s vice president of sales. Greek life has become more affordable, she said, because national and local chapters have added more scholarships or payment plans.
“I’ve seen more alumni groups be more proactive to help in that matter,” she said. “It might be them being more organized over time — groups have always been good about offering payment plans.”
Kristin Wing, a Greek consultant based in Kansas, said she has seen more and more students work their way through paying the costs of Greek membership.
“Running a chapter house is a business,” she said. “Some of that comes down to, ‘can you fill the house, have every room and every bed accounted for.’ (And) the first year you have to pay dues to the national headquarters that are one-time dues.”
But Wing said she has seen many chapters rally around helping members pay their dues, such as Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at the University of Kansas, which covered part of a low-income student’s bills for a year.
“Your landlord would not do that, but a fraternity will,” she said.
In terms of cost effectiveness, Wing said housing at Panhellenic or Interfraternity Council houses is often much cheaper than living on-campus, as is the case at UNC.
There are some costs beyond the housing or meal plan, such as social funds fraternities use for events, Wing said. For sororities, some devote a portion of their dues to rush costs.
“You have to have a freaking T-shirt for everything,” Wing said, laughing.
There’s no way of telling how economically diverse UNC’s fraternities and sororities are. UNC’s Office of Fraternity & Sorority Life and Community Involvement doesn’t track the socioeconomic backgrounds of members.
“To me, that sounds a little intrusive,” said Aaron Bachenheimer, director of the office. He said he would conduct such a study if there were a compelling reason given to him.
Princeton University surveyed its Greek system’s demographics in 2007. The study found higher-income white students were more likely to join sororities and fraternities.
Leigh Terry, a student at the University of Alabama, said she has encountered little socioeconomic diversity in her sorority. The average non-resident cost for a Panhellenic sorority at Alabama was $3,300 per semester and the high was $4,500, she said.
“For many Greek members, they are essentially paying the cost of two college educations concurrently,” Terry said. “It is an extremely discouraging factor for lower-income students, not just sub-poverty line students.”
Terry said socioeconomic and racial diversity are inextricably linked, especially at the University of Alabama.
“High dues served ... to discourage minority candidates from entering the recruitment process, and the argument that, ‘They couldn’t afford it,’ also provided a convenient excuse to any outsider who asked, ‘Why aren’t there any minorities in these Greek houses?’”
A member of a sorority in the Greek Alliance Council, which houses multicultural sororities, said the group’s low dues allow a diverse range of people to join.
“We usually tell interested girls that it is about the cost of a nice new textbook,” said the member, who preferred to be anonymous for privacy reasons. She said the low dues do lead to having smaller budgets, but her sorority is resourceful.
The group also travels a lot, which can be hard on some members.
“It is a struggle sometimes for some of us to spend an extra couple hundred dollars a semester,” she said.
Gaylord said when she told the sorority’s leaders she was leaving, they were extremely gracious and said they would help her find a way to pay for it.
But in the end, it was too pricey.
“They definitely do have some options for girls who are trying to save, it’s just, no matter how you look at it, it’s going to be expensive,” Gaylord said. “People in those groups go into it knowing it’s not going to be cheap.”