Founded on December 5, 1776, Phi Beta Kappa is the nation’s oldest academic honor society. Phi Beta Kappa originated as a secret society at the College of William and Mary in Willamsburg, Virginia. The Society was named after Greek-letter initials, ФBK, of a secret Greek motto which translates to “Love of learning is the guide of life.” The Society set the tradition of naming collegiate societies after Greek initials which has been adopted by American college fraternities and sororities.
The symbol of Phi Beta Kappa is a golden key bearing three stars, a pointing finger and the Greek initials of the Society. The stars represent three distinguishing principles of the Society: friendship, morality and learning; and the pointing finger, ambition. On the reverse, the initials SP stand for the Latin words Societas Philosophiae, or "Philosophical Society."
Since inception, 280 chapters have been established at America’s leading colleges and universities. About only ten percent of academic institutions in the United States belong to a chapter.
USC belongs to the Epsilon Chapter of California and was founded in 1929. Every year about five to ten percent of the arts and sciences undergraduates are selected for membership and are inducted at an initiation ceremony.
Students who are elected to the Society represent excellence in the liberal arts and sciences. They demonstrate intellectual integrity, tolerance for other views, and a broad range of academic interests. Among those who have been inducted into the Society are 17 U.S. Presidents, 37 U.S. Supreme Court Justices, and 131 Nobel Laureates.
The selectivity of membership, as well as the society’s rich history, is the reason that Phi Beta Kappa is considered among the most prestigious American college honor societies.