Biography and History

Originally founded at the College of William and Mary in 1776 as a social fraternity and forensic club, Phi Beta Kappa gradually evolved into national college honor society with 240 chapters. Princeton University was relatively late to apply for membership in Phi Beta Kappa as the Princeton faculty opposed fraternities of any kind. Finally in 1895 Princeton College responded to an invitation from Phi Beta Kappa to apply, and the Princeton Chapter was officially established in 1899. Occasional disagreements between Princeton and the national organization have occurred. For instance there were Princeton graduates listed as members in classes of 1896, 1897 and 1898, even though Princeton did not have a chapter until 1899. In 1927 there was a discrepancy between the College and the national organization over admission policies. By 1930 the Princeton chapter boasted that the town of Princeton had “the most intelligent population in the U.S.” since it contained 238 Phi Beta Kappa members – a ratio of one member to every 42 inhabitants compared to 1 to 107 in Ithaca, New York and 1 to 327 to New Haven, Connecticut.

When Phi Beta Kappa reached its 175th anniversary in 1951, the national leadership shifted admissions requirements to emphasize liberal education over social requirements. At Princeton Phi Beta Kappa came under criticism during the 1960s, especially from faculty members who questioned its usefulness among undergraduates. The society survived, however, and continues to promote academic excellence.

Source: From the finding aid for AC034

  • Phi Beta Kappa Records. 1896-1969 (inclusive).

    Call Number: AC034

    The Princeton University Phi Beta Kappa Records consist of correspondence, reports, minutes, and other materials relating to the administration, membership, and finances of this organization.