Tragedies at college fraternities never seem to be out of the spotlight for very long.

Four men pleaded guilty in May in the beating death of a Baruch College freshman during a kind of racial-awakening ritual at an Asian fraternity. At Louisiana State University, a student died after a drinking game. A few weeks ago, a judge told 14 members of a now disbanded Penn State fraternity that they would not have to stand trial for involuntary manslaughter (the most serious charge) in the hazing death of a pledge, Timothy Piazza. Security cameras recorded the students' cruelty and indifference to Piazza as he lay dying. 

You might think that more and more parents are advising their sons to steer clear of fraternities. Instead, these associations seem to be more popular than ever. And no matter how many critics — liberal and conservative — condemn fraternity culture, joining one looks like a perfectly rational decision.

Let's start with studies showing that fraternity members tend to earn more money after college than other graduates do, even if the record shows their grades aren't as good. That's quite a tradeoff: Slack off in class, party more — then still earn more money. Sign me up!

Yes, there is likely a selection factor at work. Students who want to join fraternities and whom fraternities want to recruit may start out with social and economic advantages. They could be naturally gregarious, confident, maybe better looking than average. They might not have to work part time or pinch pennies, as many other students do.

A new paper tries to control for such factors in its examination of why graduates with a fraternity affiliation on their resume do worse in school but better in the work force. Might the fraternity experience itself give them an advantage? If so, what exactly is the key?

According to Stephen Schmidt and Lewis Davis, two economists at Union College who (along with Jack Mara, class of 2010, whose undergraduate thesis became the basis for the paper) studied the effects of fraternity membership at a Northeastern liberal arts college, “fraternity membership lower[ed] student GPA by approximately 0.25 points on the traditional four-point scale, but rais[ed] future income by approximately 36%.”

They conclude: “This estimate implies that the formation of social capital that takes place in fraternities is much more than sufficient to overcome the loss of human capital from reduced studying, as reflected in poorer grades.”

So how does this work? It is not hard to see that while fraternities may distract from intellectual pursuits, they are giving their members “connections” that will benefit them later.

To control for the advantages the students might bring to the frat house in the first place, the authors look at data from alumni going back for four decades. They account for demographic factors like race and income level to ensure that it's not just that, say, richer, more social and less studious kids join fraternities and therefore are more likely to get low grades while having an easier time climbing a career ladder. In fact, as Davis told me in an interview, it is students “on the margins” who see the biggest boost from the association.

The college the authors studied (which remains unnamed) also underwent several changes to its campus over time.

 It started to admit women, and housing in fraternities as well as other kinds of residential settings became more and less available depending on the year. These external factors influenced the likelihood that students would join, which makes it easier to isolate a causal link between becoming a member of a fraternity and earning a different GPA or salary after college.

The authors also tried to isolate the alcohol factor. Studies show that fraternity members drink more than other students, but in the recent study, male graduates who were not in a frat but who drank just as intensively did not experience the same elevation in income levels after college, nor suffer the same grade-lowering effects while in school.

As defenders of fraternities will tell you, members do other things together besides party. They volunteer, raise money for charities, hold meetings, elect leaders, and so on. But other college groups do all these things, whether you join Hillel or the Black Students Association, a club for future engineers or an abortion-rights group.

Colleges themselves have tried to recreate the social capital that fraternities produce using bonding activities such as camping trips during freshman orientation or intramural sports organized by dormitory.

As one poster to a website called College Confidential noted, a fraternity is "supposed to "define your life." "Unlike clubs or classes, it isn't something you just add to your life," the commenter said. "Your life revolves around it." College administrators would be over the moon if students would say that about their campus experience overall. 

Though this feeling will generally make for happier students, it is no small matter that students who join fraternities are also among the most likely to donate money to their alma maters. The same tends to be true for student athletes. That might give us a small clue as to what fraternities still have over other organizations. Both sports teams and Greek houses are the last bastions of single-sex association on campus. Although Professor Davis said he would only be speculating, he acknowledged it was possible that the single-sex factor could play a role in these outcomes.

It may sound politically incorrect to say it in academic environments, where gender is supposed to be a social construct, but the study could imply that men from all races and backgrounds seem to benefit later from membership in a single-sex institution or from being able to socialize in a single-sex setting.

The study found no similar benefit for women who joined sororities. One reason for this may be that women are more likely to form social bonds with other women outside of these structures. Or it may be true, as Davis noted, that the sororities hadn’t been around for long enough to provide the same networking opportunities as the more established fraternities at the former men's college he and his co-authors studied.

Again, it's hard to find a lot of clear, hard data on generalizations like this. But as many college administrators wrestle with legal and moral questions about whether fraternities should continue to exist, they might want to consider that it is not necessarily the animal-house atmosphere that makes fraternities so appealing. Rather, as the College Confidential poster explained, “everything centers around the concept of brotherhood.”