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Prestigious honor society struggles with lack of name recognition | (KRT) Phi Beta huh?

Phi Beta Kappa, the nation's oldest and most prestigious college honor society, just isn't ringing the same old bell with college students.

At St. Louis University this spring, 23 out of 77 of them never answered invitations or follow-up calls. Ditto for 27 of 84 prospective inductees at the University of Missouri at Columbia.

University of Missouri senior Brian Quigley was among the nonplussed. To him, Phi Beta Kappa just didn't stand out among many organizations with "three different Greek letters" that he says have bombarded him with offers to join.

"I never even look into them anymore," he said. He admits that he probably would have passed up membership, except for some prodding from a faculty member who told him what a singular honor Phi Beta Kappa was.

The name recognition just isn't there anymore, said Nancy Pope, assistant dean of Washington University's graduate school of arts and sciences and a point person for Phi Beta Kappa there. "We thought we were a known quantity, and we stopped being known."

The parents of Washington University senior Dan Rubin knew, though. He first heard about Phi Beta Kappa from them, and their message was that he should grab it if he got a chance. Yet, when his invitation came this spring, he hesitated, still unsure what the organization was all about. After Pope filled him in, he was happy to join - but not excited, he said.

At the initiation, he learned more about the society, met other members - all people who "really enjoy learning" - and got fired up. "The more they talked about it, the more I thought it was right up my alley," he said.

Once the obvious standout, Phi Beta Kappa stands now, more and more obscured, in a field crowded with those many Greek-letter groups that bombard Quigley and other students with solicitations.

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"In this day in higher education, all kinds of new programs are being started, and every little Tom, Dick and Harry major wants an honor society," said Dorothy Mitstifer, executive director of the Association of College Honor Societies.

She said the competition includes "honor society mills" that visit campuses to solicit new members, work purchased lists of students' names and addresses or publish Web sites where students can sign up with a mere click.

Legitimate or not, they cost money to join. In Phi Beta Kappa's case, around $50 for a lifetime membership. But that's $50 a college student might not have or might prefer to spend on CDs or clothes_items with obvious value.

The value of Phi Beta Kappa is intangible. What price exclusivity? The honorary, which traces its origins to 1776, is as choosy as they come. To begin with, not every college qualifies for a chapter. Only 270 have passed the society's rigorous review.

Truman State University was approved for a chapter three years ago after what accounting professor James R. Turner recalls as an effort of several years.

"We repeatedly submitted applications and talked with (Phi Beta Kappa) people about how better to document what we were doing here," he said.

Membership is strictly limited to liberal arts majors - and no more than 10 percent of them on any given campus. A high grade-point average is a must but not enough. Faculty also vet prospective members for the breadth of their studies, which must include mathematics and a foreign language.

Acceptance rates vary widely - from 100 percent at slightly more than a third of the chapters to less than half at a lagging handful.

"That's a distressingly low figure," said national executive director John Churchill. "Those are the cases that we feel really need to be addressed."

Recruiting is a campus task, dependent on busy faculty members willing to take it on. They say it takes a determined effort these days to reach and reel in student prospects.

Duane Smith, an assistant professor of English, is responsible for student follow-up at St. Louis University. With phone calls and e-mails, he has sometimes been able to corral nearly all candidates. But, he laments, "The last couple of years I haven't had the time or energy to go all-out."

Shari Freyermuth, an instructor in agricultural biochemistry and his counterpart at the University of Missouri, said this year's turnout there was better than last year's. "We're trying to do things to raise awareness," she said. Those things include - new this year - a chancellor's reception for new Phi Beta Kappa initiates and their parents.

At Washington University, Pope and a couple of other faculty members have a strategy that starts with letters, sent not just to the chosen students but also to their parents. Unresponsive students get e-mails and sometimes, at the request of Pope and company, nudges from deans or other faculty members. The typical result is close to a 100 percent yield, they say.

At Illinois College in Jacksonville, Ill., it's hard for students not to know all about Phi Beta Kappa. It's noted prominently on the college's Web site. Senior Cara Culver said it's also mentioned at various campus events. After a couple of years of hearing about it, she set it as a goal for herself. Thursday, she was one of 12 new initiates there.

"It's such a great honor, there's no way I would not accept it," she said.

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© 2004, St. Louis Post-Dispatch Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services