Phi Beta what?

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

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

University of Missouri senior Brian Quigley was almost among them. To him, Phi Beta Kappa just did not 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 admitted that he probably would have passed up membership, except for some prodding from a faculty member.

The name recognition just isn't there anymore, said Nancy Pope, assistant dean of the graduate school of arts and sciences at Washington University in St. Louis and a point person for Phi Beta Kappa. "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. 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 many other Greek-letter groups that bombard Quigley and other students with solicitations.

"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 click.

Legitimate or not, they cost money to join. In Phi Beta Kappa's case, about $50 for a lifetime membership. But that's $50 a college student might not have or might prefer to spend on something else.

The value of Phi Beta Kappa is intangible. What price exclusivity? The honorary society, 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 review.

Truman State University in Kirksville, Mo., 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 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 Saint 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 Smith's 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 is also mentioned at campus events. After a couple of years of hearing about it, she set it as a goal for herself. She was recently one of 12 new initiates there.

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