The primary role of a college is to educate students, but college campuses provide opportunities for students to expand their social horizons, participate in campus organizations, and become more independent from their parents. Student-initiated extracurricular activities have always enlivened public college life. During the 19th century, literary society debates addressed topics, such as abolition and social reform and religious revivals increased piety on campus. Fraternities and sororities began to displace these activities in the late 19th century. Often excluded by fraternities with restrictive clauses in their charters, racial and ethnic minority groups founded their own societies. Jewish students founded Zeta Beta Tau (1897); African-Americans created Alpha Phi Alpha (1906); Latino students set up Phi Iota Alpha in 1931; and Native Americans founded Phi Sigma Nu in 1996.
At its height in the early 20th century, the Y.M.C.A. had branches at many colleges. Newman clubs addressed the religious needs of Catholic students at non-Catholic colleges. Jewish students joined campus Menorah societies, Zionist organizations, and Hillel Foundations. The Muslim Students Association of the United States and Canada was founded in 1963.
The roots of student participation in the arts may be traced to 1808 with the founding of the Pierian Sodality, a musical and social organization at Harvard College. College orchestras, plays, and dances offered entertainment to town and gown as colleges built concert halls and theaters. Lewisohn Stadium, an outdoor venue on the CCNY campus, offered inexpensive collegiate and professional performances for over a half century.
Campus life still often centers on an array of studentrun organizations. Newspapers, literary magazines, radio stations, theatres, performing arts, fine arts exhibitions, debating societies and clubs come and go, depending on student taste and demand. Sociologists have explained this pattern as a complex, fluid array of student sub-cultures in which new undergraduates face both the opportunity and challenge of sorting out and selecting groups with which to affiliate — all part of what some administrators have called the “cafeteria style” offerings of the American campus.