From an article in the New York Times, May 26, 1996:
Time was that men hung the golden key of Phi Beta Kappa from watch chains, and membership in the society was noted at every milestone of life: in marriage announcements, promotion notices, obituaries. But today's top college students are turning down Phi Beta Kappa in large numbers.
Some of the chosen don't join because they've never heard of the organization; others are confused by a profusion of honor societies, or see them as anachronisms that are not worth the $30 to $50 membership fees. The upshot is that Phi Beta Kappa, the nation's most prestigious honor society, has an image problem.
I don't think anybody is going to hire or fire me because I belong to Phi Beta whatever," said Brian D. Bosch, who graduated last week from the University of Connecticut.
Mr. Bosch received an invitation in early April to join Phi Beta Kappa, but he turned it down. The UConn chapter elected 143 juniors and seniors this spring, but 65 of them -- 45 percent -- did not join.
Another student who turned down the society, Joseph T. Bafumi, said: "They're basically resume-builders. You get nothing out of it and you really don't put anything into it."
And, said Laura M. Harris, who was invited as a junior but did not accept: "I've joined several other honor societies that seem better known. I don't know if this one is well known or not."
Phi Beta Kappa is both the oldest and the most exclusive honor society in the country. Only 10 percent of colleges have chapters, and just over 1 percent of college seniors are elected each year.
To be elected, a student must have more than a high grade average. Chapter members review the academic records of the top 10 percent of the class, to insure that most credits are earned in the liberal arts and sciences, in a broad array of subjects, and at an advanced level. The student must also take language and math classes, even if the college does not require them.
Nationwide, 85 percent of students who are elected choose to join Phi Beta Kappa. At small liberal arts colleges and at private universities, it is still virtually unheard of for a student to turn down the society.
Maybe I was ahead of my time?