I just bought some flourite substrate recently. I haven't gotten it in yet, but from what I can tell with the reviews it varies from person to person. Some suggest to rinse it out because it helps to get rid of the dust particles that can float around your tank for quite some time. I think it's better to put it in your tank, fill it up with water and filter it out two or three times to get rid of the extra debree that floats around rather than rinsing... The reason why I say that is because while the cloudiness is 'annoying' the main reason why your buying plant specific substrate is to give your plants that extra boost of ferts. When you rinse it, you're just washing good nutrients down the drain... waste of money, really... Especially if you're going to spend about $20+ on a 15lb bag or more.... Adding it to your tank and siphoning the water out a few times will get rid of the dust more than the needed ferts. If you have bottom dwellers, especially the ones that like to dig, it's not a good idea to have seachem flourite because it's very sharp gravel... but yours is going to be a sorority so there shouldn't be too much worry in that sense.
I'd have to say it would depend on the type of plants you get for your tank to determine whether you should pay the extra mile for plant specific substrate or if you should stick with gravel. If you're aiming for heavy root feeders, I'd look into it... especially plants that do better with finer substrate than gravel. There are root tabs you can also look into, although in comparison to replacing them every 3 months, the soil you'd have to change about once every year.
((so about $8 x 4 (four being the amount of times you'd have to spend a year for tabs) = $32; so 32 - $20 (the average amount on plant substrate) = $12 extra every year if you bought tabs vs plant substrate give or take a few bucks)).
If you're not aiming for heavy root feeders, and since you don't care for the complete look of NPT's anyway it's safe to say you can go with gravel. It's cheaper, but do keep in mind that debree can get stuck in the gravel. You still have to siphon it out well especially if you have low light plants- as the amonia build up from the food trapped in the rocks will probably be too intense for your plants to make up for it. I don't think this'll be a very big issue, though... especially if you have a good amount of plants in your tank... but also keep in mind that while plants do soak up ammonia, it is by far their primary source of nutrients. Not to mention the higher the ammonia levels the less your plants will grow and too much can still kill them... but that's what water changes and good maintenance are for ^.^ If you have plant substrate, you don't really have to do much siphoning.. It's like soil so debree can break down and somewhat revert into the soil to be recycled for plants to use as nutrients, but it's a good idea to lightly siphon the surface for any extra debree so you won't have any extra nutrients for algae to feed on or possible ammonia spikes. Also keep in mind that while with plants you are building an ecosystem, it's still a closed ecosystem; meaning that it's not 100% self-sustaining. You are still adding food for your fish and therefore giving a variating factor which helps to keep your plants flourishing. Because you are 'god' in this sense and are the key factor, without you your tank deminishes. A fully balanced ecosystem will do just fine on it's own.
*ahem* Anyway! ^.^;;; As for having a filter... It's going to depend (again) on what types of plants you have. Usually smaller tanks are the ones you don't have to worry about having filters in if they're NPT's but some people do anyway (me being one of them as I have a 5g planted tank and have decided I'd like to use a filter as well). The larger ones tend to have filters so there's nothing wrong with having one. You can think of your plants as fish in this sense: Certain plants like water that is stagnant (like bettas) while other plants are more used to higher current flow and appreciate that 'breath of fresh air' (in this case air being water) to breeze over their leaves. It also helps to spread nutrients and clean water throughout your tank and just as fish do, plants enjoy nice clean water as well. From what I remember, what sucks is that if you have a filter that uses carbon then the carbon can possibly filter out nutrients your plants feed from. If you have lower light plants it's not much of an issue because they don't need a butt load of it, but higher feeding plants may be affected. However, keep in mind that carbon usually lasts for about 2 weeks... If you're curious about carbon and the affects on plant life, you can always dig in a bit more as this is the only extrent of knowledge I know on the subject... Usually when you first establish your plants in your tank it's a good idea to have a filter running. Your plants have to adjust to their new surroundings, and therefore before the plants can be at the top of their game your filter can pick up the slack til they get more established. Afterwords, you have the option of removing the filter or keeping it... It's your choice and since this is your tank you'll be able to see it better and get a better feel than ones that can recount experiences to you or go off of what they've read in their own research.
Anyway, I feel like I'm rambling now... I hope this... exceedingly longer than intended to be reply will give you some insight and help you figure out which route is the best for you and your sorority. Good luck in the aquatic life!