Marilyn Sallee checked her Wiscmail account throughout the previous year to find, on several occasions, emails from an organization called HonorSociety.org. The messages commended her “academic achievements” and accepted her into the society.
Sallee attends classes at UW-Madison as a senior guest auditor, meaning she does not receive grades for or any measurement of such “achievements” as normal students do.
Sallee said, “the claims about my high grades qualifying me for this Honor Society were very suspicious.” This was among many other characteristics attached to the organization that may raise red flags.
HonorSociety.org is, as their emails read, “the preeminent organization dedicated to recognition of student success.” The organization operates heavily through their website, particularly for members from institutions like UW-Madison where there is no physical chapter. The intention of the online portal is for members to connect to one another and develop leadership skill and take advantage of networking opportunities. Individuals that receive the emails can simply click the link to activate their membership, which then leads them to an electronic form in which they provide their personal information, and they are then a member.
According to HonorSociety.org Executive Director Michael Moradian, not everyone at UW-Madison receives an email from them, but everyone is eligible to join. He said they work directly with the university to determine who they send the emails to.
Because the university is a public institution, faculty, staff and student directory information, including email addresses, “is releasable under state open records law upon request,” according to UW-Madison spokesperson Meredith McGlone. GPA is not available for public access, but awards such as Dean’s Lists are, although individuals like Sallee do not appear on Dean’s Lists.
However, she said there is not a directory-information request from HonorSociety.org in the last three years. Anyone can make a request, though, so an individual may have requested the information without naming the organization.
“UW-Madison does not have any institutional relationship with HonorSociety.org nor do we endorse it or encourage students to participate in it,” McGlone said in an email.
The Association of College Honor Societies, which is described on their website as “a visibly cohesive community of national and international honor societies,” does not include HonorSoceity.org as a member of its community According to a USA Today article, most professional honor societies are certified by ACHS. They have a warning posted on their website that encourages students to thoroughly research organizations they receive invitations from, like HonorSociety.org. And they offer a checklist that describes criteria for determining whether an honors society is legitimate or not.
ACHS Executive Director Lisa Wootton Booth said HonorSociety.org, as well as similar organizations, “call themselves honor societies without even meeting the most basic of these standards around minimum scholastic criteria.”
“They are merely for-profit groups happy to accept membership fees from any and all students regardless of accomplishments or lack thereof,” Booth said in an email. “Belonging to their organization does not actually confer any sort of genuine honor, nor does it qualify students for ‘Superior Academic Achievement’ as defined by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.”
HonorSociety.org does charge a membership fee of $50 bi-annually. Moradian said fees are necessary in order to ensure members are “invested in the society.” He said the money goes toward building programs and serving members, as well as funding scholarships and other benefits members receive, which include dining and health discounts.
According to Sabine Gross, director of the UW-Madison College of Letters & Science Honors Program, it is not unusual for “reputable Honors societies” to require such a fee, but these societies then have “clear admissions criteria,” which HonorSociety.org lacks. Moradian said this is a move for their mission to become more inclusive.
“To be a member it's just quite simply taking the initiative to join,” Moradian said. “It's an open process and its purposely not prohibited. We don’t want to turn people away. We're looking to build an inviting culture.”
He added other benefits the organization offers, which include academic scholarships, as well as leadership and networking opportunities.
“We’re helping to connect people to build leadership positions and then empowering them to be connected with other leaders, whether those are leaders of
UW-Madison first-year nursing student Abbey Vadnais, a member of HonorSociety.org who received a scholarship through the organization, said she has not been in communication with other members or leaders associated with HonorSociety.org. However, her scholarship—which she applied for by writing a short essay—was legitimate.
Vadnais said because HonorSociety.org does not have a physical space on campus she was not involved with the organization beyond applying for the scholarship. Alison Rice, an undergraduate scholarships officer in the College of Letters and Science, listed several questions to ask when evaluating honor societies—one was “is there an active local chapter?” and another “is there a local contact that I can call?”
Rice said another factor that should cause someone to think about the legitimacy of an organization is whether university faculty, staff or scholars recognize the group. Both she and Gross had not heard of HonorSociety.org before speaking with The Daily Cardinal.
Logging onto the HonorSociety.org website today, you will not find UW-Madison in the list of chapters. Moradian said this is due to new features and upgrades they are installing over the summer, which
Booth and Gross both said they urge students to thoroughly research HonorSociety.org, and consult university faculty and staff with questions, and similar groups before forking over membership fees to what Gross called a “rip-off.”
“It's analogous to invitation to ‘publish your poetry’ for a fee, or invitations to submit one's bio to a ‘national directory of scholars’ for a hefty sum,” Gross said in an email. “I can see how unsuspecting recipients might be taken in or at least wonder—but [HonorSociety.org] fails every serious test of credibility.”