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.
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