Opinion Columns & Blogs

Greeks take their case to Washington

Josh Isaacs, master of the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity. He was selected as one of 100 Greek members nationwide to lobby Congress for legislation that pertains to the Greek system.
David Middlecamp
Josh Isaacs, master of the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity. He was selected as one of 100 Greek members nationwide to lobby Congress for legislation that pertains to the Greek system. David Middlecamp 01-28-2013 dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Consider the Collegiate Housing & Infrastructure Act, aka CHIA. If, like me, that sounds like Greek to you, you’re not far off the mark: It’s pending federal legislation that could have a major impact on the Greek system of college fraternities and sororities around the country — Cal Poly Greeks included.

In fact, Josh Isaacs, a Cal Poly marketing-business major who’s president of the Alpha Epsilon Pi Fraternity, is one of 100 fraternity-sorority members nationwide who’s been chosen by the North American Interfraternity Conference to lobby Congress on the issue April 21-25.

Numerically speaking, some 250,000 undergraduates live in 110 fraternities and sororities in 12,000 chapters on 800 campuses across the nation. And a little-known fact is that these frat and sorority houses are the nation’s largest not-for-profit student landlord behind dorm living on campus.

The problem that the Greek reps will be discussing with Congress is that these houses operate almost exclusively on rents and don’t have the ability to raise tax-deductible donations to upgrade their physical chapters. In essence, the almost 10 million former Greeks — including 144 members of the House and Senate — can’t cut a tax-deductible check to help retrofit frats and sororities with such safety features as sprinkler systems.

Now, if you’re like many folks who don’t know what Greeks do — other than occasionally get bad press for a hazing incident — consider this: Members of frats and sororities volunteer 10 million hours of service each year. Toward that end, they mentor at-risk students, volunteer at senior centers, build homes for the poor, raise funds for medical research and, like Alpha Epsilon Pi, donate food to homeless shelters like the Maxine Lewis Memorial Shelter in San Luis Obispo.

The beauty of CHIA is that it can greatly reduce the costs of a college education if more students can live in fraternities and sororities. It’s no secret that college costs at every level — public and private — are increasing at an unsupportable rate. For instance, 55 percent of college students will graduate this year with an average debt of $22,000; some 8 million college students will see their student loan rates double on July 1 from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent — widening the debt load commensurately — if Congress doesn’t act. It’s not a stretch that defaults will occur, placing further strain on taxpayers and a sputtering economy.

Along those lines, consider that the amount of debt a graduate carries into the world has increased 25 percent in the past 10 years while starting salaries (assuming there’s even a job waiting) have diminished, furthering inevitable defaults. To put some skin on that stat, student debt is now more than $1 trillion, which surpasses credit card and auto loan debts.

Obviously, a key factor in lowering college costs lies in the expense of room and board; fraternities and sororities provide housing for a quarter-million students each year at no cost to colleges and taxpayers. The problem is that about $1 billion in backlogged construction and safety improvements prevent more students from living in frats and sororities. That can be changed by CHIA, where tax-deductible charitable contributions can be used to upgrade and build Greek housing.

Because of the shaky state of the economy, more students are looking at on-campus living. However, when every penny counts in getting an education, consider: It costs from $6,800 to $8,500 a year to live in a frat/sorority at USC while the average cost of university dorm housing at the same university costs $11,580 a year. Ratios of those kinds are uniform on campuses across the nation.

OK, so it seems like a no-brainer that Congress would want to change the tax code and save taxpayer money through adopting CHIA. But there’s another reason the Greek system should be allowed to upgrade and expand its housing stock, leveraged through private funding: Being a member of a fraternity /sorority, according to Isaacs, stresses good grades and responsible citizenship, business opportunities open up through networking, “and you always have a brother or sister covering your back.”

As it happens, Alpha Epsilon Pi Fraternity’s slogan is “Developing Leadership for the Jewish Community,” and there are any number of fraternities and sororities that represent African-Americans and other interests.

That may be the case, but when it comes down to it, the Greek system pulls together regardless of race or creed, and our society is stronger for it.

As Isaacs says: “We’re the future leaders of the country. We don’t just party; we try to better the community and the country as best we can.”

Good luck in your lobbying, Josh.