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Rushees Should Consider Other Options

Column by Thomas R. Karlo
Contributing Editor

Today and tomorrow, many of the freshman men will be asked to make what may be the largest decision of their stay at MIT. They'll have to decide not only where they'll live for the next four years, but who they'll associate with, and, to a large degree, what ethics and attitudes they'll align themselves with. And they'll have to make this decision after only a couple of days at MIT. If you're one of the guys in this position, I don't envy you. But maybe I can at least help you make a more informed decision.

Despite what you may have been told, you're basically about to make the biggest purchase decision of your life. Yes, fraternities offer a lot of wonderful things, especially from the viewpoint of a freshman arriving at a new university. And yes, they've probably welcomed you like long lost friends during the last few days. But if you are given a bid and you decide to pledge tomorrow, what will be the cost of finalizing this deal?

What fraternities are asking you for - in return for membership, the support of existing brothers, and the use of whatever social reputation the fraternity may have - is a lot. They're asking for your money, your unquestioned loyalty, and the next four years of your life. This is a lot to ask of a person. If you went to buy a car, you'd expect to pay thousands of dollars, but you wouldn't expect to have to swear undying allegiance to the dealer, and clean the bathrooms there for the next four years of your life, would you? Fortunately for the fraternities, they don't have to put a sticker in the window of their car. Unless you're smart enough to do your own balance sheet, you'll be buying based only on how the car was in the test drive, without any regard for what it's going to cost you.

This doesn't mean joining a fraternity isn't the right choice for many people. It just means that freshmen need to be aware of the costs of joining. You've just sat through a three-day sales pitch for the fraternity system. Now you're being hit with what they call a "membership ploy" in the marketing business. Make someone feel they're part of the group (give them a bid, hang out with them), and you can sell them just about anything. If you're considering buying into the system, you should consider the pitch you've been given.

The fact is, while fraternities try to market membership as a privilege, it's much closer to a commodity. There are a lot of spots up for sale this weekend, and fraternities need to get buyers for those spots or risk declining membership. They've gone to great lengths to make their product attractive to you. Most have been working on their houses all week, if not longer, preparing them for you, the customer. The question is, are they selling you the real thing, or a pig in a poke?

Nor is this pitch done on an even playing field. Like a government protecting domestic goods with tariffs on imported merchandise, the MIT administration works hard to ensure a successful fraternity rush. It has to, or the shortage of on-campus housing will become even more dire. To ensure that fraternities can get new members, the administration starts fraternity rush a full day before dorm rush, ensuring that many freshmen guys never even go to dorm rush events. And it keeps the student activities, which represent a tremendous option for on-campus life, entirely out of the picture during rush. Finally, while fraternities bring every single one of their members back to campus to help woo freshmen during rush, the dormitory system is only allowed to bring back a tiny fraction of their residents to help promote that aspect of campus life.

The tremendous advantage given to fraternities during rush, and the incredible amount of work that they pour into it, should give freshmen pause during rush. If fraternity life is so much better than life in the dormitories, why aren't students at MIT allowed to experience dorm life for a term, or a year, like at other schools? And why are dorms not allowed to compete for the minds of freshman on an equal footing with the fraternities? Is the system of dorm rush meant to ensure that you, the freshman, makes the best decision for yourself, or is it meant to herd enough students into the fraternity system to keep it alive?

I'm sure that for many of you, you've already made up your minds about whether or not you intend to pledge a fraternity. If you're unsure of what to do, I urge you to go and take a look at the dormitories. No, they're not selling as hard as the folks across the river. But often the product being sold the hardest isn't the best for you - it's just the best commission for the salesman. You're about to make a big purchase that will be with you for many years. Think carefully, and look hard. And remember: buyer beware.