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by Nancy Keates | March 10, 2009


It's a club that boasts former U.S. presidents, corporate chieftains and cultural icons like John Updike, Francis Ford Coppola and Stephen Sondheim. Chief Justice John Roberts is a member, as is Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito. (Former nominee Harriet Miers isn't.) Its very name is shorthand for smarts. Just last week, on TV's "Commander in Chief," a character defended herself by saying, "I was Phi Beta Kappa."

But when 21-year-old Shawn Drenning got his invitation to join the group last spring he tossed it in the trash. "I didn't think it would be useful to me," says Mr. Drenning, who graduated from Cornell University.

Phi Beta Kappa may be America's most famous honor society, but these days it's a club not everyone wants to join. Enrollment rates have plummeted at some schools: Last year when Phi Beta Kappa sent out invitations to qualifying undergraduates nationwide, just three-quarters of them responded; at Colorado State University, two-thirds said no. Many members have no idea what the society actually does or what their initiation fees really pay for. Phi Beta Kappa also is facing competition from soundalike societies with lower requirements, including some on the Internet with names like Phi Sigma Theta. (All you need to get in is a friend's recommendation.)

A group that once prided itself on exclusivity is now embarking on a major marketing campaign. One idea, rejected by the group's governing body: a PBK credit card. Last month, the Washington organization hired a chapter-relations officer, who will travel to most of the 270 campus chapters to publicize Phi Beta Kappa. For a new brochure, the group prepared a roster of illustrious names. (But even big brains sometimes get it wrong. The list included Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, U.S. Sen. Carl Levin and actress Sela Ward -- none of whom are actually members. Ms. Ward recalls getting a similar-sounding honor at the junior-college level. "Isn't it a different honor society?" she asks.)

John Churchill, Phi Beta Kappa's national secretary, says the group needs to boost its visibility. "It should not be necessary for anyone to peer at Phi Beta Kappa and ask, 'Who are they?' " he says.

To anyone who graduated more than 10 years ago, the idea that a student would turn down a Phi Beta Kappa invitation may sound ludicrous. Founded in 1776 at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, it was originally a sometime-drinking, sometime-debating all-male secret society that over time devoted itself to recognizing students who excelled in liberal arts. Charters at Harvard and Yale were followed by Dartmouth, Bowdoin and Brown. For about 100 years, most members attended small, private colleges. Phi Beta Kappa then opened up to many public universities -- though it remained a calling card to the vestibules of power. Chapters usually admit only students in the top 10% of their class.

A 24-Carat Gold Key

An invitation to Phi Beta Kappa typically means this: You get a letter during junior or senior year, with congratulations and a request to pay an initiation fee (generally $50 to $90). If you don't respond, some chapters send a follow-up letter to your parents. Once you enroll, you get two free issues of the society's quarterly newsletter and the lifelong right to list Phi Beta Kappa on your risumi. Some chapters also throw in a certificate. But you have to pay extra for a "golden key," the symbol of Phi Beta Kappa. The 24-carat gold electroplate version costs $29; a fancier 10-carat gold one is $110. For the real enthusiast, there's an array of other Phi Beta Kappa merchandise, offered through its Web site and newsletters, such as a $39 tie printed with little gold keys, and $195 table lamp with a hand-stenciled gold key on a wooden base personalized with the member's name and college.

Phi Beta Kappa says one reason enrollment rates are down is that the undergraduate population is dramatically different from a generation ago, with more foreign-born students or those whose parents didn't attend college in the U.S. Also, there are more Phi Beta Kappa chapters at state schools, where larger campuses make it harder for professors who are members to track down students to explain to them why they should join. "Many of our students have never heard of [Phi Beta Kappa] until they get the letter," says Martha Ratliff, a professor of linguistics at Wayne State University in Detroit, where only 60% of students invited to join Phi Beta Kappa last year said yes.

Meanwhile, there's increasing competition from other honor societies -- ones that students can use to buff their resumes with a lot less work. Gamma Beta Phi, for example, typically invites students to join as soon as they earn 12 credit hours and rank in the top 20% of their class. Membership in Gamma Beta Phi, which also admits students from two-year colleges, has swollen in size to 100,000 from 10,000 in 1984. Another group, the National Society of Collegiate Scholars, founded in 1994, which also has looser academic requirements than Phi Beta Kappa, has 218 chapters, up from nine in 1998.

There's also a slew of more dubious honor societies that students can join on the Internet. Phi Sigma Theta's Web site gives no street address or phone number -- just an email address; it lists "universities with participating members," but several of those universities have no record of the group's registering on campus. (The group didn't respond to emails requesting comment.) The National Scholars Honor Society allows students to sign themselves up online and send in a $75 fee -- as long as they agree to the group's "honor code."

"Students are bombarded by honor societies," says Mary Joe Hughes, secretary of the Phi Beta Kappa chapter at Boston College. "They don't know how to distinguish Phi Beta Kappa." Brian A. Carlisle, associate dean of students at the University of California, Los Angeles, says the problem for more exclusive honor societies like Phi Beta Kappa is that students end up listing so many honor societies on their risumis that employers stop looking at them. In 1999, the New York Times stopped allowing couples to mention Phi Beta Kappa in their wedding announcements because people started asking to list other honor societies.

Ignoring the Invitations

Yaniv Larish, a senior at the State University of New York at Binghamton, says he has been approached by six honor societies since he was a freshman. When the invitation arrived from Phi Beta Kappa this summer, he ignored it along with the others and says he didn't think the $55 fee was worth it. "I think it's a big waste of money," he says, adding that his 3.85 grade-point average speaks for itself and wouldn't be bolstered by membership in any club. "When I apply for jobs or medical school they won't look at that," he says.

Phi Beta Kappa itself is reaching out to a wider variety of colleges, and some members say this expansion has weakened its credibility as a brand of excellence. Every three years, the organization authorizes six to 10 more colleges and universities to start chapters and invite students. Among the latest: Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla., whose motto is "The Right Climate for Learning" (average SAT score of entering students: 1135) and the State University of New York at Geneseo (average SAT 1282.).

Phi Beta Kappa says that only schools with strong liberal arts and science programs are allowed to establish chapters. "The reality is that the top people at Harvard and the top people at the state schools are just as good," says Scott Lurding, Phi Beta Kappa's associate secretary. "It's not like the floodgates have opened."

Indeed, many recruiters say that the words "Phi Beta Kappa" on a risumi immediately signal that an applicant is smart -- or at least works hard. "It has tremendous cachet," says Jack Mohan, president of Management Recruiters The Boston Group, an executive-search firm.

Phi Beta Kappa, which is largely run by professors who must themselves be members of Phi Beta Kappa, says its mission goes beyond risumi enhancement. The nonprofit group helps pay for distinguished scholars to speak on campuses, gives out book awards, and publishes the quarterly American Scholar magazine. In addition, there are now more than 50 regional Phi Beta Kappa associations -- groups of alumni who hold meetings and sponsor scholarships and awards. Phi Beta Kappa also offers opportunities for social and professional hobnobbing, such as an upcoming swing-dancing event and a sushi happy hour in Washington, where the local association has a division for younger members called "PBK Young Professionals."

But the organization has recognized for years that it has a problem: How to market itself without tarnishing its image of exclusivity. Some leaders wanted to accept a multimillion-dollar offer from a bank to issue a Phi Beta Kappa credit card. A battle ensued, with one contingent arguing that a credit card wouldn't be appropriate because it would entail making money off other people's debt. "It just made me queasy," explains Kathy French, president of Phi Beta Kappa at the University of California, San Diego. In the end, the proposal was scrapped.

Indeed, the group has gone to great lengths to protect its image over the years. In 1988 it sued Compaq Computer Corp. in federal court to stop it from using the slogan "Phi Beta Compaq." There was some concern when St. Vincent & the Grenadines issued a stamp with Mickey Mouse wearing the Phi Beta Kappa key -- and mild amusement when a 1979 copy of Playboy featuring a Phi Beta Kappa cover girl turned up in the society's basement. The group recently denied permission to use its name on a gravestone, but said it was all right to use a translation of the Greek motto that its initials stand for: "Love of wisdom, the guide of life."

New Headquarters

To help pay for operations, Phi Beta Kappa's national office has raised membership fees twice in the past three years, to $50. (Some campus chapters tack on an additional fee.) Its annual budget is $4.7 million, with about half coming from alumni donations, and the rest from merchandise royalties, investment income and fees. It recently moved into new headquarters, a $4 million brownstone with a giant golden key out front.

In an effort to boost enrollment, professors at local chapters have started emailing and calling students several times after initial invitations are sent to convince them of the society's merits. Some even offer to pay the enrollment fee for students who say it's a deterrent. At Boston College, Phi Beta Kappa faculty members send letters to students' parents in hopes they'll exert influence.

Phi Beta Kappa also is dispatching alumni to high schools to spread the word. That's what worked for Dena Pichette, who heard about the society before she entered Wayne State. When she graduated last spring, she immediately accepted Phi Beta Kappa's invitation and says she'd have been willing to pay up to $200 for the honor. Though she has no evidence, she believes the society helped her get into the University of Pennsylvania's chemistry doctorate program this fall. Ms. Pichette also looks at Phi Beta Kappa as a way to make connections in the future with other Phi Beta Kappa members.

One member, actress Glenn Close, says the benefits of Phi Beta Kappa are long-lasting. "Now, when I feel stupid, it actually reminds me that I'm not," she says.

* * *

Honor Roll

In its new brochure Phi Beta Kappa will send to every student invited to join there's a list of famous members of the honor society. We decided to call some on -- and off -- the list and ask them what it meant to be Phi Beta Kappa... and if they knew where their keys were. Here's what we found:

Name/Job: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Supreme Court Justice
School/Year Admitted: Cornell University/1953
Read Newsletter: Don't recall last time I read it
Key Location: N/A
Certificate Location: Don't know
Comments: The justice says her closest connection with the honor society came in 1973-74 when she lectured at colleges as part of Phi Beta Kappa's annual "visiting scholar" program. "The exchanges with students," says Ms. Ginsberg, "were engaging for me and, I hope, stimulating for the students."

* * *

Name/Job: Glenn Close, Actress
School/Year Admitted: The College of William & Mary/1974
Read Newsletter: No
Key Location: Don't know
Certificate Location: In a box in a storage unit
Comments: Ms. Close doesn't get the Phi Beta Kappa newsletter, can't remember if she ever did, and -- "oh, dear," she says -- doesn't know where her key is. And the certificate? "The good news is that it is framed, the bad news is that it is in a box in a storage unit." But the award "validated a lot of hard work," the actress says.

* * *

Name/Job: Elizabeth Dole, Republican senator from North Carolina
School/Year Admitted: Duke University/1957
Read Newsletter: Unfortunately no
Key Location: On a bracelet I gave to my mother
Certificate Location: Don't know
Comments: Mrs. Dole was invited to join her junior year, something only about 10% of members can boast. She says the society's "focus on continuous learning" has helped her to relish the challenges of public-sector roles, from an assistant to President Nixon to Secretary of Labor under President George H.W. Bush.

* * *

Name/Job: Vicki Iovine, Playboy cover girl; author ("The Girlfriend's Guide to Pregnancy")
School/Year Admitted: University of California Berkeley/ 1976
Read Newsletter: Never in my life
Key Location: Lost it
Certificate Location: Don't know
Comments: Ms. Iovine wore her key pin on her pink bathing suit when she entered Playboy's 25th Anniversary Playmate Hunt in 1978, sent by the LA Herald Examiner to infiltrate Playboy. Then Vicki McCarty, she was named Miss September 1979 and pictured with her key prominently displayed. She lost her own key, but her brother left her his when he died of AIDS. "That one I will never lose," she says.

* * *

Name/Job: Peyton Manning, Quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts
School/Year Admitted: University of Tennessee/ 1997
Read Newsletter: Every issue
Key Location: In a box on my desk
Certificate Location: Framed in my office
Comments: Mr. Manning has many football awards, but his Phi Beta Kappa certificate and key are prominently displayed in his office. "It's a special recognition," he says. Tennessee geography professor Thomas L. Bell, who runs the Phi Beta Kappa office on campus, recalls the induction ceremony as "very exciting" -- because Mr. Manning's dad, football star Archie Manning, showed up.

* * *

Name/Job: Michael Milken, Financier turned philanthropist
School/Year Admitted: University of California Berkeley/ 1968
Read Newsletter: Yes
Key Location: At home
Certificate Location: At home
Comments: Mr. Milken says his Phi Beta Kappa newsletter competes with a stack of medical journals he scans every month, but he usually gets around to reading it. His oldest son made Phi Beta Kappa in 1995. "I hope it will be a continuing family tradition," he says.

* * *

Name/Job: Pat Robertson, Televangelist
School/Year Admitted: Washington & Lee University/1949
Read Newsletter: No
Key Location: In a box with some gold coins in my desk
Certificate Location: I have no idea
Comments: Mr. Robertson's Phi Beta Kappa credentials come up often, he says, especially when he's being introduced as a speaker. "It's one of those things that are tagged to my risumi," he says. He guards his key in a safe spot, but throws the newsletter away. "Maybe if there was something relevant I'd read it," he says.

* * *

Name/Job: John Paul Stevens, Supreme Court Justice
School/Year Admitted: University of Chicago/ 1941
Read Newsletter: Yes
Key Location: N/A
Certificate Location: Don't know
Comments: Nominated by President Ford to the Supreme Court, Justice Stevens has served for 30 years and at 85 is currently the oldest justice. Asked what Phi Beta Kappa means to him, Justice Stevens replied: "High honor."

* * *

Name/Job: John Updike, Writer
School/Year Admitted: Harvard/1953
Read Newsletter: Read the last issue
Key Location: With my jewels
Certificate Location: Don't know
Comments: Mr. Updike entered Harvard as a would-be cartoonist, he says, but soon shifted his sights to being a writer "who wore tweed coats and lived in Connecticut and somehow made a living." He made Phi Beta Kappa his junior year (something he says only eight others achieved) and views the honor as meaning "academic distinction." The biographies on his books don't mention the honor.

* * *

Name/Job: Francis T. (Fay) Vincent Jr., Director of Time Warner; Former Major League Baseball Commissioner
School/Year Admitted: Williams College/1960
Read Newsletter: No
Key Location: On a bracelet
Certificate Location: Don't know
Comments: The Yale Law School grad was president of Columbia Pictures before becoming baseball commissioner in 1989. He says he's "very proud" of his Phi Beta Kappa achievement, "especially as I had to do four years work in three because of a serious injury my freshman year." His key is on a bracelet his mother made, with small footballs and baseballs awarded to his athlete father at Yale.