And the Honor Goes to…
…those who cough up $60.
The envelope looked so elegant and the seal so distinguished that--without my reading glasses on--I took it to contain an invitation for my older son to join the National Honor Society.
Maternal pride swelled as I handed him the envelope and it wasn’t until he said, “What’s the National Society of High School Scholars?” that my skeptic’s antenna went up. It turns out this particular “honor” would cost us $60, according to the letter. But that would include--drum roll please--“a free graduation honor card which is valued at $15.00.”
“As you prepare your university applications, you may list your selection and membership in the Society as one of your significant accomplishments,” the letter said.
So I asked Greg MacDonald, dean of admissions at Lafayette College, if his staff would consider a student’s membership in this group to be a plus on an application. Absolutely not, he said. “Any award that a student would have to pay for to receive, that alone would have to cast a lot of doubt on it.”
Lehigh University spokeswoman Jennifer Tucker said the admissions staff there also doesn’t put stock in such memberships. “Typically, things like this that students have to pay for are not something we consider in the admissions process,” she said.
MacDonald told me, “I’ve lost track of how many parents have called me on questions just like this. These are very skilled, highly paid marketers.”
My son’s name and address on the envelope and the name of his high school were hand written, which initially led me to believe that it came from his school. But when I asked his guidance counselor, Natalie Kriner at Salisbury High School, she said the school had nothing to do with it. “We get a bunch of different ones and I toss them right in the trash,” she said, echoing the college officials’ advice that students shouldn’t have to pay for an honor or a scholarship.
So, if the school didn’t give the National Society of High School Scholars my son’s name, how did the group get it? I called and e-mailed the organization to ask that and other questions and initially a staff member e-mailed that she was willing to talk with me. But I left another message and never heard back.
So this is what I gleaned from the group’s website: Its 2010 annual report said it inducted 95,605 new members last year but gave 2,633 of them full or partial fee waivers based on their economic status. If you do the math, that’s still more than $5.5 million in revenue from the $60 membership fee alone. The report said it gave out $201,250 in scholarships last year.
Meanwhile, I contacted the National Honor Society, and a representative told me parents often confuse it with the High School Scholars group.
So let’s look at the differences. As part of the National Association for Secondary School Principals, the National Honor Society is nonprofit. The National Society of High School Scholars is a for-profit enterprise. The National Honor Society has school-based chapters and those chapters are permitted to charge an annual fee of up to $20 in dues. But that money stays with the school chapter for its activities, according to David Cordts, associate director of Honor Societies at the principals’ association.
Cordts said each school’s National Honor Society members are chosen by a committee appointed by the principal. The committees base their selections on a student’s scholarship, leadership, service and character, he said. “It’s an honor bestowed on the students by the faculty of that school,” he said. “The common misperception of the Honor Society is that it’s based on grades alone.” Honor Society chapters are expected to do service projects, such as blood drives.
According to the National Society of High School Scholars’ website, the students it nominates must have a 3.5 cumulative grade point average or better. But it’s not clear how it finds those students when their schools don’t participate. Membership benefits include “networking with the best and the brightest students from around the world,” attending events for members, scholarship opportunities and information on applying for college.
The latter two are available online and elsewhere for free. As for networking with the “best and the brightest,” well, if the price of admission is $60, we’ll stick with the hoi polloi.