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Consumers : Frat, Sorority Life: A Bargain or a Burden?

August 23, 1989|MICHELLE M. MILLER | Times Staff Writer

You've mortgaged your house, taken on extra work for the extra pay and even borrowed from the bank to send your budding genius off to a good college. Now your offspring suddenly has announced that he or she plans to join a fraternity or sorority.

OK, you've heard the rumors--from tame social teas to wild parties, from the unmerciful search for status to the possibility of making valuable contacts. But beyond the pins, pomp and paraphernalia, as parents, you're bound to ask: What's this going to cost?

That question can be especially pointed and disconcerting to families already facing tuition expenses, like UCLA's $540-a-quarter fee, USC's $6,600-a-semester charges or the costs at state universities in Fullerton and Los Angeles running at $440- and $276-a-term respectively.

But discounting the dollars spent on the array of obligatory social functions, campus Greeks insist that fraternity and sorority housing can be the best financial benefit of belonging to their organizations.

"I'm only paying $330 for the entire summer," Tom Bratkovich, a UCLA junior, raved about his three month stay in the house owned by his fraternity, Phi Kappa Psi. "I only wish I lived here year round!"

He's not alone. Almost all fraternities and sororities with housing on or near the USC and UCLA campuses report long waiting lists for the school year. Most fraternities and sororities, however, dole out housing under a "first come, first served" tradition, giving preference to students with the most seniority in their organizations, explained USC Interfraternity Council President David Lake.

Two-Year Wait

This means that recent initiates--students like Bratkovich, who only became a Phi Kappa Psi last fall--may face at least a two-year wait before they can enjoy the cost-benefits of Greek house living.

At first glance, prices quoted for fraternity or sorority living can seem reasonable; it can be $50-to-$100-a-month cheaper than dormitory living and $100-to-$200-a-month cheaper than off-campus apartment life.

It still isn't cheap. And there's another catch: even if students don't live in the house but join a fraternity or sorority, they still must pay its monthly activity fees or dues.

UCLA fraternity and sorority "live-outs," for example, pay $125-to-$225-a-month in membership dues, various houses report. The same is true, though the costs are lower, in Greek houses at state universities, where fees range from $25- to $85-a-month. That fee underwrites dances, panels, retreats and programs that houses sponsor alone or collectively, said Lake, who heads the USC fraternal system's governing body.

Why do live-outs seem to bear the burden of those living in the frat house?

As Lake explained it: "Essentially, the live-ins are paying the same price for their activity fee as those who live out . . . its just included in their rent. What it means is that their actual rent is what's left over from the activity fee. That's a deal."

Bratkovich also defended the system, saying it's fair because, "everyone goes through it. You get in line, you wait until a space is available, and then you move in. It's kind of like a reward . . . you look forward to it."

For those students lucky enough to get space in a house, there are rewards to Greek life. At UCLA, for example, frat house residents pay $350- to $400-a-month, while other students pay up to $520-a-month for on-campus housing, university housing officials say. While some dorms provide 19 meals a week, full access to recreation facilities and utilities, the fee for Greek living covers meals--at some houses--utilities and monthly dues (activity fee).

In Westwood and neighboring areas, off-campus housing can be especially steep, running from $425- to $900-a-month for bachelor or single apartments, the off-campus housing office said. At USC, campus dorm fees include meals and range from $550- to $625-a-month; off-campus apartments with kitchens cost about $300 monthly, the USC housing office says.

In Alhambra, at Cal State Los Angeles the off campus housing ranges anywhere from $200- to $250-a-month, in comparison to the $100- to $200-a-month required in a frat or sorority. The $85- to $200-a-month that Greeks pay to live-in at Cal State Fullerton fraternity or sorority houses may seem cheap, but does not include meal- or activity-fees.

Easing the Burden

Many students in fraternities or sororities try to ease the financial burden on themselves and their parents by taking on parttime jobs. While Lake's parents help with his tuition at USC, he, for example, works to pay for his extracurricular activities and living expenses. Bratkovich maintains a scholarship that covers two-thirds of his UCLA tuition. Other students borrow on student loans--to supplement their tuition, not their fraternity or sorority activities.

Activity fees, fraternities and sororities emphasize, also are not the only costs incurred by members. As part of their socializing, they can end up spending money on clothes, gifts and other items.

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