In our last post, we talked about a college rankings list you probably never heard of, the ranking of colleges with the most students selected for an award in the Fulbright U.S. Student Program. We thought colleges with Fulbright awardees indicated those schools had serious academic programs and advisers who helped the students earn their awards.

We also said another program, Phi Beta Kappa (PBK), was a sure indicator of the quality of the colleges’ strength in the liberal arts and sciences. Of the approximately 1,400 four-year colleges and universities U.S. News ranks, just 290 institutions have a Phi Beta Kappa chapter. (The more than 4,000 colleges and universities the U.S. Department of Education lists includes satellite campuses of larger universities, community colleges and for-profit colleges.)

Phi Beta Kappa’s first meeting took place on December 5, 1776 in Williamsburg, Virginia. Five years later, in nearby Yorktown, what became the climactic siege of the American Revolutionary War was imminent.  Afraid for the fledgling organization, one member persuaded fellow members to allow colleges in New England to charter chapters. That preserved Phi Beta Kappa, and chapters were established at Yale in 1780, at Harvard in 1781 and at Dartmouth in 1786.

Of course, most people hearing of Phi Beta Kappa believe it is such an exclusive academic achievement that it is well beyond their realizing and, therefore, of no importance to them. So, what does it matter whether a college you are considering has a Phi Beta Kappa chapter?

What matters is that these colleges and universities are different from all others, and here’s why.

  • Colleges that shelter, i.e. host, a Phi Beta Kappa chapter have applied for selection and submitted to a rigorous, three-year course of examination and re-examination by Phi Beta Kappa to prove the high quality of its liberal arts and sciences course of study and its support of its programs.
  • The steps in the application process consist of a review of the application by the Committee on Qualifications, a visit to the campus, an updated application, recommendations to the PBK Senate, and recommendations by the Senate to the Triennial Counsel. Rejection of the application is possible at each step. Then, at the end of three years, a vote by the Triennial Council approves or disapproves the applications that got that far.
  • So special is earning a Phi Beta Kappa chapter that the president of the University of Houston, Renu Khator, said, “Our earning a Phi Beta Kappa chapter…was the culmination of a tenacious and protracted effort led by a group of staunch faculty members.” He continued, “In many ways, I point to the Phi Beta Kappa chapter as the achievement I’m proudest of so far. . . . Simply put, you [a college] don’t qualify for Phi Beta Kappa unless you have clearly established a culture that supports your students at every turn.”

As a student compiling a college list, realize that many colleges that don’t have well-known “brand names” and that you, your parents and your friends might never have heard of are, in fact, very fine colleges that host Phi Beta Kappa chapters.

For example, what do you know about Muhlenberg College, Saint Joseph’s University, Swarthmore College and Ursinus College, all in Pennsylvania? What do you know of Alfred University, several of the City University of New York colleges, St. Lawrence University, and Union College, all in the state of New York? They all have PBK chapters.

If you’re interested in traveling farther from the New York-Philadelphia area, do you know the College of Wooster in Ohio; Grinnell College in Iowa; Rhodes College in Tennessee; and Wabash College in Indiana? They all have PBK chapters.

We are not suggesting you must consider these colleges. On the contrary, the presence of a Phi Beta Kappa chapter should not be the determining factor in whether you consider a particular college.

However, if someone whose opinion you trust recommends a college, but neither you nor your friends ever heard of it, check to see if it has a Phi Beta Kappa chapter. If not, continue to look further into the recommendation. If yes, you know that that college is one of the special 290, just one of many factors to consider as you make your college list.

Even if you don’t believe you could ever achieve a Phi Beta Kappa key (only 10 percent of graduates do), the presence of a PBK chapter is a sure sign of the college’s high academic quality and its commitment to its students’ success.

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