Phi Beta Kappa Society

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The Phi Beta Kappa Key

The Phi Beta Kappa Society is an academic honor society with the mission of "fostering and recognizing excellence" in undergraduate liberal arts and sciences. Founded in 1776, it is the oldest such society in the United States. Membership is granted to approximately 1% of college graduates, and today there are 270 chapters and over half a million living members.

Phi Beta Kappa (ΦΒΚ) stands for Φιλοσοφια Βιου Κυβερνετης or philosophia biou kubernetes -- "love of wisdom, the guide of life."



ΦΒΚ, the first Greek-letter fraternity in the United States, began as a secret literary and philosophical society at the College of William and Mary in 1776. The second chapter was established at Harvard University on December 4, 1779, and the third at Yale University on December 8 of the same year. Subsequent chapters were established at Dartmouth College in 1787, Union College in 1817, Bowdoin College in 1825, and Brown University in 1830. Secrecy was jettisoned in 1831 during a period of strong anti-Masonic sentiment.

By 1883, when the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa were established, there were 25 chapters. The first women were elected to the society at the University of Vermont in 1875, and the first African-American member was elected at the same institution two years later.

Each chapter is designated by its state and a Greek letter indicating the order in which that state's chapters were founded. For example, Alpha of Pennsylvania refers to the chapter at Dickinson College (1887); Beta of Pennsylvania at Lehigh University (1887); Gamma of Pennsylvania at Lafayette College (1890); and Delta of Pennsylvania at the University of Pennsylvania (1892).

In 1988, the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa officially changed its name to The Phi Beta Kappa Society.

The Key

The symbol of the Phi Beta Kappa Society is a gold key engraved with the image of a pointing finger and three stars. These represent the ambition of the young scholars and the three distinguishing principles of the Society: friendship, morality, and learning. On the back of the key are the initials "SP," which stand for the Latin words "societas philosophiae."

Ignorance of Phi Beta Kappa

A May 26, 1996 article in the New York Times * ( entitled "Phi Beta Kappa Being Turned Down by Many Honorees" noted that some students were turning down membership in the Society because they had never heard of it or had already been inundated with membership offers from imitators like Golden Key. Virtually all of the 27 chapters that reported acceptance rates under 90% were at large state universities.

At private universities and small liberal arts colleges, however, election to Phi Beta Kappa remains one of the highest honors a student can receive, and the few membership offers extended are almost universally accepted. Amherst College Professor Gerald Mager said that he could not remember the last time a student turned down an offer to join Phi Beta Kappa, and noted that "every time we have an election, the student newspaper runs a story." According to the Times article, the vast majority of chapters report acceptance rates well over 90%.

Famous Members

Elected as Undergraduates

Honorary Members

External Links


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