University News

Phi Beta Kappa honor society inductees discuss $135 initiation fee

Students express concern that fee could pose financial barrier to entering society

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Admission to one of the nation’s most prestigious honor societies comes with a hefty price tag. University juniors and seniors elected to the Rhode Island Alpha chapter of Phi Beta Kappa are asked to pay a one-time initiation fee in order to officially accept an invitation. This year, some junior electees were surprised that they would have to pay a $135 fee to accept their invitation to the honor society. On Feb. 12, 2020, 40 members of the class of 2021 were elected to the University’s Phi Beta Kappa chapter, The Herald previously reported.

Students were notified of the fee in a document attached to their email invitation. In addition to other steps on how to register with the national chapter, the document states that students have the option to either pay the fee online or by check. “Please keep in mind you are not considered an official member until you have paid the fee,” the document states.

Anne Wise, the director of the National Arts & Sciences Initiative at the Phi Beta Kappa Society, wrote in an email to The Herald that the fee is a combination of the “lifetime fee” that the national office requires and a chapter fee. Chapter fee “expenses include the costs of hosting an induction ceremony, providing membership certificates, offering a reception to honor new inductees and Phi Beta Kappa events on campus during the year,” Wise wrote. But Wise added that chapters should try to keep these expenses low: “We encourage the colleges or universities that shelter our chapters to help defray these expenditures so that the cost of joining is not a burden for students,” she wrote.

Some benefits students receive in return for paying the fee include membership in local alumni associations, alumni newsletters and access to The American Scholar academic journal, according to the national chapter website.

“My first reaction to seeing it, I think in part because of the fee was … it’s just a money grab,” said Finch Collins ’21. “Even if (the invitation) is nice, it would be just paying for a credential.”

Mary Dong ’21 was also surprised by the fee because she felt most academic honors usually award a scholarship or some other benefit instead of having the recipients pay for their entrance into the society. Ultimately, Dong and Collins researched the society and concluded that it was worth it to pay the fee. “The consensus on the internet was that (Phi Beta Kappa) is probably worth it in the long run for the future benefits,” Dong said. For Dong, the benefits of joining the society included access to an alumni network and future job opportunties.

Although Viknesh Kasthuri ’21 decided that Phi Beta Kappa was worth the fee, he was unsure about its purpose, besides maintaining the chapter.

Financial aid resources were not explicitly mentioned in the Rhode Island Alpha chapter’s invitation document, including no explicit instructions for students for whom the fee would be a financial burden. Wise said that there are approximately 70 chapters within Phi Beta Kappa who cover all or part of the membership fees, or specifically pay for students who need financial aid.

Most students felt the fee did not deter them from joining but recognized that it could be a financial barrier, and felt that the University should pay for it or offer need-based resources. “I think Brown should cover it. I am fortunate to be in a position where paying it is not an inconvenience, but I know a lot of people that would be making very tough decisions for this,” Collins said.

Dong assumed that some Phi Beta Kappa alumni would be in a position to donate funds to offset the fee, and she wished that the Brown chapter was more transparent about the purpose of the fee and what the funds support in the organization. “I also would assume that a lot of Phi Beta Kappa members have gone on to become very successful and I’m sure they donate back to the society, so I’m just not super sure what this fee is exactly for and I feel like more transparency might actually be helpful,” Dong said.

Other schools take a similar approach to Brown and do not pay for Phi Beta Kappa fees, but some offer more explicit programs and resources for students who lack the funds to pay the initiation fee. According to George Levesque, the secretary for the Yale chapter and associate dean of Yale College, “At Yale, elected students pay the membership fee … but we offer to pay the fee for anyone who receives Yale financial aid or who otherwise demonstrates a financial hardship,” he wrote in an email to The Herald.

Logan Stewart McCarty, a Harvard Phi Beta Kappa chapter officer and the director of Physical Sciences Education, expressed clearly that Harvard’s chapter is separate from the university and, therefore, Harvard does not pay for the fee. “It is certainly an honor for students to be elected, but Harvard has always felt that it is not their role to subsidize students’ memberships in private organizations,” McCarty wrote in an email to The Herald. “Although I think there’s a reasonable argument that Harvard could help subsidize (Phi Beta Kappa) memberships for students based on financial need, I also appreciate their argument that it is a separate, private organization.”

For the Harvard chapter’s most recent election, McCarty believed the total fee was $115. Although Harvard does not pay for fees, McCarty wrote that some alumni cover the cost for new members. Harvard’s chapter has “some generous alumni who have offered to pay the fee for students who identify that it represents a financial hardship — typically these are students on full financial aid, with no family contribution,” McCarty said. “This is done privately through the (Phi Beta Kappa) chapter, and doesn’t involve any funding from Harvard.”

The national chapter ultimately wants any elected students to be able to join and hopes chapters provide financial aid for those who need it, Wise wrote. “Many of (the Phi Beta Kappa) chapters do not have the operating budget to pay for student fees, which is why (the national chapter) encourage(s) chapters and institutions to collaborate with each other and with us to identify strategies for ensuring that cost is not a barrier to membership,” Wise said.

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