In Defense of Honor

Academic honor societies have been around since 1776, yet to this day they grapple with myths and misinformation that challenge them to assert their worth. Approximately half a million students become members of honor societies each year, according to the Association of College Honor Societies. However, we know that many others who were invited question the legitimacy and value of joining.

I spent over 20 years at universities working to support student success prior to my current role leading an honor society. I’ve seen firsthand the myriad resources that help students who struggle academically. We want students to do well, yet sometimes resist recognizing and celebrating academic success.

Colleges offer Dean’s Lists, Latin honor designations of cum laude, merit scholarships, and honors programs. On the other hand, the importance placed on grades leads to stigma and hesitancy to draw attention to those who excel. Assumptions about honor societies lead naysayers to deem them as suspect or simply not worth joining.

The Value of Membership
Students are skeptical because honor societies require a membership fee. “An organization that invites you to join and pay money just because your grades are good is a scam,” some believe.

Honor societies assess a fee to join, but membership adds value to the student experience beyond the value many other registered student organizations offer.

A supported honor society chapter provides

  • a community of scholars.
  • unique leadership and career development opportunities.
  • a sustained network of peers for social and professional support.
  • discounts and perks from businesses and educational partners.
  • coordinated community service projects.
  • national conferences and public speaking opportunities.
  • online learning and development.
  • initiation ceremonies with families in attendance.
  • scholarship funding.

Let’s be real about fees – there are costs to operating student organizations. Honor societies are not the only organizations with membership fees – think club sports and fraternities and sororities.

While some may assume that joining a club on campus is free, colleges assess mandatory annual student activity fees that fund student organizations. An honor society chapter operating on campus is no different. There are costs associated with planning campus programs and events, plus the additional resources that come from a national organization.

The honor society I work for keeps the one-time fee as low as possible and offers waivers for students in need. Legitimate honor societies are nonprofit charitable organizations, with added transparency offered through GuideStar.

Are Grades Important?
I’ve seen it many times: “I got a 1.9 my first semester in college, but today I am a rocket scientist/brain surgeon/corporate executive/fill in the blank.” The message here is that grades don’t matter; persistence and determination are more important. But they aren’t mutually exclusive – effort and results are both important.

Sometimes colleges send a mixed message. They provide resources for students who struggle – tutoring, supplemental instruction, study-skills workshops, and academic support centers – but often are reluctant to recognize students who excel.

Not all students who meet the grade qualifications to join an honor society were honors students prior to that. Many graduated high school with average or below average grades. Many struggled in their first semester or first year. But they attended those workshops, they sought out tutoring, they participated in a study group – they availed themselves of all the university had to offer – and it worked. They excelled and attained a high grade point average. An invitation to join an honor society can mean the world to them. It validates and celebrates their persistence and determination. It motivates them to continue on the path of academic excellence. They can become inspiring role models for other students.

Many clubs and teams have requirements such as a certain level of skill or experience. In this sense, honor societies are similar; they have membership criteria and standards.

Critics question the importance put on grades and the grading process – implicit bias, inequality, and the stress it can cause. Honor societies are designed to recognize and promote academic excellence among college students. By definition, this means that they will emphasize academic achievement. It does not necessarily mean they don’t value other qualities or contributions. Many recognize excellence beyond grades, including service, leadership and research.

Merit and honor are long held values that have been rewarded for centuries. And grades are important to many graduate programs and employers. Embracing excellence is at the root of an honor society’s existence.

A final word on grades. Pressure to attain a high GPA can cause a lot of stress and anxiety - and even shame when aspirations are not met. Falling short of an academic goal can be devastating. Compounded by other priorities, such as a parttime or fulltime job or internship – or taking care of family – the struggle to balance can be challenging.

But that should not take away from the sense of accomplishment a student has when they balance a lot on their plate and still excel. Honor societies should promote the strategies and practices that lead to higher grades, without adding to the pressure a student already feels. We need to get better at this.

Are They All Scams?
Not all “honors” organizations are the same. Unfortunately, some are profit-making enterprises with no connection to the true purpose of recognizing honor. Questions to ask when judging the credibility of an honor society include:

  • Does the organization require (and verify) minimum scholastic criteria?
  • Is it a nonprofit association that provides transparent governance?
  • Are there recognized student-led campus chapters?
  • Are there hidden and/or recurring fees?

The honor society I lead has been around almost 100 years, with 1.3 million members during that time. We are very much a legitimate honor society.

Honor Societies Offer More
An honor society chapter can offer so much more than a transcript notation or a line on a resume.

  • Honor societies are national and international organizations backed by staff, volunteers, and members who work to enhance the academic and extracurricular offerings of a university.
  • Honor societies enhance belonging by fostering friendships and group connections.
  • Honor societies facilitate student and faculty interactions that include working on group projects, forming study groups, peer tutoring, developing critical thinking skills, creative problem solving, and promoting intellectual self-esteem.
  • Honor societies develop student leaders. Members lead campus, local, national, and even international programs and activities that focus on scholarship, research, leadership, career readiness, and service. They develop an increased sense of social responsibility – a global view of society and a heart for “giving back” by helping others. Members gain experience and develop leadership skills and abilities that will be valuable in both their academic and professional careers.
  • Honor societies award millions of dollars in undergraduate scholarships and graduate fellowships each year. They help students stay in college and pursue advanced degrees.
  • Honor societies provide connections outside of the institution – employers, educational partners, and leaders in members’ fields of study.
  • Honor societies provide academic support and motivate students to achieve their potential. They offer opportunities to celebrate an accomplishment and enhance academic offerings that support the retention of successful students.
  • Honor societies provide opportunities to affiliate with a network of members all over the world.

There’s space in the higher education landscape for all kinds of student organizations, and a case can be made that they are all important. This is not a zero-sum game, where support for one type of organization takes away from another. Celebrating the academic achievements of some students does not reduce support for students who struggle.

Honor societies play a vital role on a college campus. They are steeped in rich history, deliver distinct value, and help students identify and develop their unique roles in society.

Written by
Eileen Merberg
Executive Director, Alpha Lambda Delta, The Honor Society for First-Year Academic Success
Past President, Association of College Honor Societies
Email: [email protected]

Eileen Merberg has been the Executive Director of Alpha Lambda Delta Academic Honor Society since 2015. Previous to that Eileen was supporting student success in various capacities at Buffalo State University, including Director of Student Life, Director of Orientation and First-Year Programs, Retention and Leadership Specialist, and adjunct lecturer in Leadership Studies. Prior to Buffalo State, Eileen was Director of Campus Life at Sonoma State University in California, and Assistant Dean of Students at Loyola University Chicago. She holds a master’s degree in Higher Education and Student Affairs Administration and a bachelor’s in Psychology, both from Buffalo State, and an associate’s degree from Monroe Community College.