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Is This a Scam?

A friend’s daughter was recently invited to join the National Society of High School Scholars (NSHSS), and her pride was ignited in a way it only can be by one’s own child. Until a fellow mom doused her with “It’s just a scam.”

So she asked me, “Is this a scam?”

Imagine courtesy of Rochelle Nicole on

Imagine courtesy of Rochelle Nicole on

It’s a legitimate question. I too wondered the same thing when first encountering these kinds of programs early in my career. And I knew plenty of school counselors—often advisors to well-established chapters of the National Honor Society—wonder the same thing. It can appear like one more scheme appearing on the scene to make a quick buck off the anxieties and students and parents eager for validation and resume augmentation.

So is this a scam?

Short Answer: No.

More of an Answer…that Begins with a History Lesson

Honor societies have long been a staple of the college landscape. Many hail from an era when only the American aristocracy attended college and they all studied the same “classical” education, so honor societies were a way to distinguish oneself as especially gifted in general, or more accomplished than others in a particular subject.

There wasn’t much of a need for honor societies at the secondary school level until public education became compulsory and middle- and working-class students entered the fray. Suddenly competition for recognition of academic achievement—and the resulting economic advantage—gave rise to a number of organizations.

Every high school has them. Key Club. Future Farmers of America. Interact Club. Future Business Leaders of America. DECA. I’m sure you can name several more and that’s just from your own high school experience. Some of these programs exist regionally, or hold more sway in varying locations, but they’re all serving the same function.

The king of them is the National Honor Society (NHS). Founded in 1921, NHS is in every state and carries with it a hefty reputation. Many colleges have merit scholarships for NHS members who are often singled out in graduation ceremonies and elsewhere as the top scorers in their school.

Present Day

In today’s ultra-competitive environment, students want an edge, a way to signal to colleges that they too are amazing and worthy of recruitment. The marketplace for accolades has grown, and the dominance of NHS was never going to last. So new programs have sprung up. The NSHSS was founded in 2002 and has worked hard to establish itself as a credible program. And by all measures it is.

I’ve met with students who joined and had positive experiences with the program. I’ve met with representatives of NSHSS at the NACAC vendor fair, and they were legit. They’re just new.

So Why Do People Suspect Honor Societies may be a Scam?

People are naturally suspicious of anything new, especially when that new thing asks for money. But every honor society asks for nominal dues. It’s how they afford to operate. So the NSHSS’s ask for $60 to join is in line with its peers.

In this specific case, though, the new honor society is going up against one well-established program in which your high school is probably heavily invested. But ask yourself if there is any harm. Nothing will ever take the place of NHS; it will only ever supplement it. If that means more students get a confidence boost in this challenging rite of passage, then I’m all for it.

How Colleges View Honor Societies

As an admissions counselor reviewing an application, membership in NHS didn’t carry weight with me. Why? Because it’s held by students who I already knew were excellent. It does nothing more than confirm the high GPA and challenging course schedule their transcript and class rank told me they had.

But remember, colleges want to recruit high achieving students, and tracking NHS membership is an easy way to identify them. So they offer scholarships. They send marketing material praising an NHS student for their status. They may even have special opportunities for NHS members to visit campus. Again, if these opportunities are opened to more students then that increases access in a world where everyone can always use more of it.

Should Your Students Join an Honor Society?

Why not? If they’re working hard and eager to show it, then let them join. Or if they’re awesome but getting little recognition in a competitive high school, perhaps an honor society will be just what they need. Just make sure they know joining is for them and them alone - it’s a “must have” on their college application to get admitted.

Jen ParticaComment