Academic Achievement Among Black Sororities: Myth or Reality?
The purpose of this study is to explore the association between student achievement and Black sorority membership, specifically within the four National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC) organizations. African Americans’ college persistence and graduation rates continue to lag behind those of White and Asian American students (NCES, 2011). While much attention is paid to African American males, research on African American women is needed to understand their challenges and concerns (Chambers, Bush, & Walpole, 2009; Howard-Hamilton 2004; Haniff, 1991; Matthews & Jackson, 1991). Black Greek Sororities are a unique space on predominantly white campuses and African American sororities historically have assisted female African American college students’ persistence and graduation rates (Harris, 1998; Phillips, 2005); yet, more recently, African American fraternities and sororities have been criticized (Kimbrough, 2009; Parks & Spencer, 2013; Phillips, 2005). Given research that has found that Black fraternities are not necessarily fulfilling their academic goals (Harper & Harris, 2006; Johnson, Walpole, & Chambers, 2011), we believe that examining academic achievement within historically Black sororities is critical. This study confirms that African American women involved in NPHC sororities are not immune from some of the same academic issues that have been reported about their male peers (Harper & Harris, 2006; Harper, 2008). [End Page 131]
Despite some recent progress, African Americans’1 college persistence and graduation rates continue to lag behind those of White and Asian American students (NCES, 2011). While much attention is paid to African American males, research on African American women is needed to understand their challenges and concerns (Chambers, Bush, & Walpole, 2009; Haniff, 1991; Howard-Hamilton 2004; Matthews & Jackson, 1991). Given the broad reach of Black Greek Letter Organizations, specifically the reach and influence of the historically Black National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC) organizations, insights into the academic performance of African American women may be gleaned through an examination of NPHC sororities. Results of an informal search of NPHC organization and related websites reveal that of the 4.5 million college-educated African Americans, 22% are NPHC members. Moreover, almost half, 47%, of Black undergraduates in one study reported belonging to a Black Greek Letter Organization (Sutton & Kimbrough, 2001). The total population of NPHC is one million members, and of that one million, nearly two-thirds are women.
Black sororities are a unique space on predominantly White campuses where one can garner a sense of the academic propensities of young women. African American sororities historically have assisted female African American college students’ persistence and graduation rates by providing a sense of belonging as well as by bolstering academic achievement (Harris, 1998; Phillips, 2005); yet, more recently, African American fraternities and sororities have been increasingly scrutinized for hazing (Kimbrough, 2009; Parks & Spencer, 2013). Sororities in particular have been criticized for focusing on intragroup differences rather than academic achievement (Phillips, 2005), a focus that has been parodied in popular culture (Whaley, 2005). Given research that has found that Black fraternities are not necessarily fulfilling their academic goals (Harper & Harris, 2006; Johnson, Chambers, & Walpole, 2011), we believe that examining academic achievement within the context of historically Black sororities is warranted. Thus, the purpose of this study is to explore the association between student achievement and Black sorority membership, specifically within the four NPHC organizations.
A critical race feminist frame undergirds this study. Critical race feminism is a derivation of critical race and feminist theory approaches (Matsuda, Lawrence, Delgado, & Crenshaw, 1993; Wing, 2003), which highlights the interconnectedness among racial, gender, and other identities. Too often in education circles, we consider factors of race and gender separately, leaving the experiences of women and girls of color obscured by the larger consideration of groups with whom they share an identity (Chambers & Dixson, 2009; Evans Winters, 2011; Gafford Muhammad & Dixson, 2008; Glassman & Roelle, 2007; Hanson & Palmer-Johnson, 2000; Lei, 2003; Mirza, 2006; Rollock, 2007; Weaver-Hightower, 2003). The limited consideration of the academic achievement and experiences of African American women students, K-16, is perhaps best summed up in the title of the Black feminist classic, All the Women are White, All the Men are Black, But Some of Us are Brave (Hull, Bell-Scott, & Smith, 1982). However, Black women are not
merely the sum of separate parts that can be added together or subtracted from, until a white male or female stands before you. The actuality of our layered experience is multiplicative. Multiply each of my parts together, one x one x one x one x one, and you have one indivisible being. If you divide one of these parts from one you still have [End Page 132] one [emphases in the original](Wing, 1990, p. 194).
Like its critical race theory counterpart, critical race feminism is not a monolithic theoretical framework, but encompasses many, of which intersectionality is but one (Wing, 2003). Intersectionality addresses the inability to remedy a particular situation because institutional policies and procedures address discrimination and exclusion based on layers of one’s identity, but not the overlay of these identities. Hence, Crenshaw’s (1989) prime example is that of a firm that hired White women to answer office phones and Black men to work in the warehouse, but would not hire Black women for either role. And yet this firm was found not to have violated Title VII Civil Rights Act of 1964 because it hired both women and Blacks.
In the present study we are addressing an issue of oversight, and our call is for institutions to drill further into their analyses of student data to discover whether and where there is oversight in academic programming support, oversights driven by predisposed opinions as to which students are faring well on campus and which ones are not. Until institutions can identify students in need, they cannot begin to design remedies to address those needs. In our implications, we further explore the role of intersectionality when considering institutional structures, policies, or procedures (Crenshaw & Dill, 2009; Dill, 2009).
In postsecondary educational spaces, chronic attention to the educational trajectories of African American men, along with the comparatively high enrollment rates of women more generally, tends to suppress contemporary inquiry into the academic achievement and experiences of women students generally, and Black women specifically (Weaver-Hightower, 2003). For example, searching journal contents most often yield articles on African American or Black college students without a focus on gender, articles on African American or Black males, and few, if any, articles on African American women. Regarding research specific to Black Greek Letter Organizations, an ERIC search yielded only 27 articles, and of those, 12 were centered on the experiences of men and fraternities. While several articles considered sororities, none was specifically focused on women or sorority organizations.
In the present study, we confront the myth of Black women’s gender advantage in higher education. In fact, we find in the current study that the gap in performance, as measured by grades, is greater among sororities by race than among fraternities. The comparative struggle in academics among these highly engaged sets of students seems to warrant a more granular approach to evaluating the academic achievement of students. Beyond consideration of race and gender separately, those attending to differentials in student achievement need to consider the intersection of these in addition to identities of class, sexual orientation, and the like in order to have an accurate appraisal of student achievement.
Research documents that time spent outside of the classroom is significant in the educational experiences of college students (Kuh, Cruce, Shoup, Kinzie, & Gonyea, 2008). NPHC fraternities and sororities have a rich heritage, and engage and provide students with access to community social and cultural capital during their college years to help resist and overcome isolation and oppression at macro and micro levels (Allen, 1992; Bennett, 1998; Carroll, 2011; Floyd, 2009; Harris, 1994; Jessop & Williams, 2009; Patton, Bridges, Flowers, 2011; Solorzano, Ceja, & Yosso, 2000; Vaccaro, 2010; Walpole, 2008, 2009).
For African American women, sororities such as the historically Black NPHC organizations (Alpha Kappa Alpha, Delta Sigma Theta, Sigma Gamma Rho, and Zeta Phi Beta) serve as a primary mechanism through which students are empowered to participate in campus life and benefit from out of classroom socialization experiences (Caroll, 2011; Fleming, 1984). NPHC sororities [End Page 133] are known for their ability to impact student persistence (Floyd, 2009; Harris, 1994), provide opportunities for community service, economic independence, and racial uplift (Berkowitz & Padavi, 1999; McKenzie, 1990) as well as support post-graduation networking (Carroll, 2011; Floyd, 2009; Harris, 1994; Stombler & Padavic, 2005).
Yet, some scholars find burgeoning anti-intellectualism among Black Greeks (DeSantis & Coleman, 2008; Harper, 2008). Focusing on fraternities, Harper and Harris (2006) found that student performance as reflected in GPAs often contradicted the espoused values of scholarship. Similarly, Johnson, Chambers and Walpole (2011) found no statistically significant difference among the Spring 2008 GPAs of NPHC fraternity and sorority chapters at 20 institutions. These and other studies have tended to focus more heavily on the academic performance of men (Cuyjet, 1997; Holzman, 2010; Howard-Hamilton, 2006). However, African American women face many of the same academic and environmental challenges (Howard-Hamilton, 2004). In fact, Harper (2008) found little difference in academic achievement between African American fraternities and sororities. Thus, we examine the academic achievement of African American women in NPHC sororities compared to non-NPHC sororities as well as comparing NPHC sororities to NPHC Fraternities.
To explore academic achievement among NPHC sororities, we conducted a study comparing the grade point averages (GPA), accessing publicly available Spring 2010 GPA data, for 33 flagship institutions, 24 of which had NPHC chapters. Flagship institutions are
the fully mature public universities serving most of states. In most cases, these institutions were the first public universities to be established in their states. Many of what we now call the flagship campuses were established in the extraordinary period of university building that took place in the United States in the roughly three decades from the mid-1850s to the mid-1880s. Many came into being after the Morrill Act of 1863 provided the federal grants of land to the states to establish public universities.(Berdahl, 2008, p. 2)
Berdahl (2008) goes on to explain that several states have two flagship institutions “a land-grant college focused on agriculture and the ‘mechanical arts’ as well as general education, and another more directed at classical education and the other professions “ (Berdahl, p. 2). In this vein, all flagship universities are public doctoral institutions with a research focus. We selected flagship institutions so as to provide a nationally representative sample as well as a cohort of institutions with similar missions for their states. As such, our sampling strategy controls for institutional factors such as size (medium to large), control (public), and student profiles (undergraduate and graduate), in order to increase the reliability and validity of our study. While institutional selectivity does vary among flagships, they are typically among the most selective public institutions in a particular state. However future research could potentially control for selectivity as a factor. However, as GPAs are relative to institutional selectivity, we posited that the difference in organization GPAs by selectivity would be small. This is of course an empirically testable assumption for future study. Future research could also account for student majors, which could affect average GPAs on campuses.
Our data set consisted of 193 fraternities and sororities. These included organizations of the Interfraternity Council (an umbrella organization of historically White fraternities), the National Pellhellenic Council (an umbrella organization of historically White sororities), the Multicultural Greek Council (an umbrella organization of racially, ethnically, and religiously diverse sororities and fraternities), organizations unaffiliated with any of the national organizations, and [End Page 134] the nine NPHC organizations. In total, there were 1593 organization chapters; 39% were sororities. There were 64 NPHC sorority chapters with memberships from the four NPHC sororities: Alpha Kappa Alpha, Delta Sigma Theta, Sigma Gamma Rho, and Zeta Phi Beta. NPHC sororities comprised 10% of the total sororities and 44% of NPHC chapters.
We began our analysis with descriptive statistics, including the means and standard deviations of the average GPAs of NPHC sororities. Since our objective was comparative, as opposed to predictive, and our data met the assumptions for parametric data (Field, 2009), we then used three independent samples t-tests to compare the mean GPA of all sororities to the mean GPA of all fraternities, the mean GPA of NPHC sororities to the mean GPA of non-NPHC sororities, and the mean GPA of the NPHC sororities to the mean GPA of NPHC fraternities. Equal variances are assumed throughout, unless otherwise indicated through a Levene’s test (Field, 2009). We then conducted a more focused assessment of average chapter academic performance solely for NPHC sororities, making comparisons among organizations, utilizing a one-way ANOVA to examine differences. In addition to meeting the assumptions of parametric data, we utilized Levene’s statistic to ensure the ANOVA model assumptions were met (Field, 2009). Tukey’s post hoc tests were utilized to control for type I errors.
Of the 1593 fraternity and sorority chapters in our sample, 622 were sororities, and of those, 64 were NPHC sororities. The mean non-NPHC sorority GPA was 3.21, while the NPHC mean sorority GPA was 2.82. Looking specifically at the NPHC sororities, the organization mean GPAs ranged from 2.68 to 2.97, but there was wide variation within the sorority chapters (Table 1). The lowest reported mean GPA was 1.86 in a NPHC4 chapter and the highest reported GPA was 3.52 in a NPHC3 chapter.
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In the t-test analyses, all sororities significantly outperformed all fraternities academically (MSororities= 3.16, S.D.= 0.29; MFraternities= 2.97, S.D.= 0.30; t=−12.208 df =1591; p<0.0001). Yet, in comparing non-NPHC sororities to NPHC sororities, the former had a significantly higher mean GPA than the latter (MNonNPHCSororities= 3.21, S.D.= 0.25582; MNPHCSororities= 2.82, S.D.= 0.36767; [equal variances not assumed] t=8.173 df =73.137; p<0.0001). However, we found no significant differences when we compared the average GPA for the NPHC sororities as a group to the average GPA for NPHC fraternities as a group (MNPHCFraternities= 2.72, S.D.= 0.38; MNPHCSororities= 2.82, S.D.= 0.37; t=−1.64; df =143; p=0.103). Mean GPA differences among the NPHC sororities were not significant in the one-way ANOVA (F= 2.91; p= 0.098). In sum, sororities overall have significantly higher GPAs than fraternities, but NPHC sororities’ academic performance lags significantly behind non-NPHC sororities. However the NPHC sorority GPA is not significantly different from the NPHC fraternity performance. Additionally, there was a greater difference in mean GPAs within individual NPHC sororities than among the four organizations. Given the wide variation in chapter GPAs, these results may be more a function of the sample rather than being trends endemic to any particular organization.
Discussion, Conclusion, Implications for Research and Practice
This study confirms that African American [End Page 135] women involved in NPHC sororities are not immune from some of the same academic issues that have been reported about their male peers (Harper, 2008; Harper & Harris, 2006). Similar to previous reports among fraternities, there is a racial gap in academic achievement between NPHC sororities and non-NPHC sororities. The African American sororities report GPAs from C-to between a B and B+. The fact that some of the chapters have higher GPAs does not reduce the responsibility the national organizations and individual chapters have for increasing achievement, particularly given their written rhetoric regarding the importance of scholastic achievement. Chapters with average GPAs below 2.0 clearly need immediate intervention.
One of the main purposes of college is the accumulation of academic capital, typically displayed through grades and grade point averages (Harper, 2008). While sorority membership will almost certainly assist members in accruing social capital because of the bonds that are formed with other members (Carroll, 2011; Floyd, 2009; Harris, 1994; Stombler & Padavic, 2005), these members will also need academic capital to maximize their potential in the workforce or in graduate school. The accrual of academic capital needs to be the focus for these sororities, rather than intragroup difference (Phillips, 2005; Whaley, 2005).
We believe these results also have important gender implications for research and practice. The predominance of literature on Black fraternities to the exclusion of sororities is another testament to disparities in the attendance to issues concerning the African American community by gender. Yet, as illustrated here, and as demonstrated by Harper (2008), on average African American men and women fraternity and sorority members perform below their peers on an equal basis. Interventions solely focused on Black men and fraternities will not address the racial gap in academic performance. African American women face many of the same academic and environmental challenges as their Black male peers, on and off campus, yet they do not warrant a similar attention from scholars or practitioners.
While institutions need to focus attention on the academic needs of all students, we see from our analysis that the unique needs of African American women are not always sufficiently addressed. Specifically, institutional policies and practices focused on women and sororities may not address the issues specific to African American women. Similarly, the policies and practices designed to respond to the needs of African American students may not specifically focus on African American women. Thus, the intersectionality of race and gender clearly needs to be considered and addressed by institutions. For example, tutors and advisors may receive professional development to assist them in working with diverse students generally rather than focused on the unique issues of particular groups. Greek offices on campus may have staff members or graduate assistants who work specifically with NPHC chapters or with sororities, but who perhaps unwittingly overlook the needs of NPHC sororities.
Critical race feminism particularly focuses on such disparities and highlights the need for scholars and practitioners to recognize the unique experiences and needs of these women (Matsuda, Lawrence, Delgado, & Crenshaw, 1993; Wing, 2003). We can no longer allow these experiences and needs to be obscured by attention focused on either African Americans or on women, while not attending to women and girls of color (Chambers & Dixson, 2009; Evans Winters, 2005; Gafford Muhammad & Dixson, 2008; Glassman, & Roelle, 2007; Hanson, & Palmer-Johnson, 2000; Lei, 2003; Mirza, 2006; Rollock, 2007; Weaver-Hightower, 2003). In this vein, faculty and practitioners concerned with the quest for equality in academic scholarship must give attention to factors of race and gender. [End Page 136]
1. Note that the terms African American and Black are used interchangeably throughout the manuscript.