This past December, 61 seniors and 15 juniors were inducted into Phi Beta Kappa — an academic honor society that recognizes juniors and seniors based on the percentage of A’s they have received at Yale. The students attended a simple ceremony in Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall, where they learned about the society’s history and were honored for their academic achievement.
Among the honorees was Claudia Torres ’19. For Torres, transitioning from high school to college had not been especially difficult. She attended a private all-girls school in Summit, New Jersey on a scholarship, which she said prepared her for the intellectually challenging papers and discussions required at Yale. The high school, Kent Place School, was named as one of The Wall Street Journal’s top 50 schools in the world for preparing students for matriculation to top American universities.
The News collected data for recent inductees through interviews and publicly available information — looking at the junior electees for the graduating classes of 2020, 2019 and 2018 as well as for the second group of electees in the class of 2019.
According to the findings, 50 percent of these inductees attended public high schools, 34 percent attended private high schools and 16 percent attended international schools.
According to the Yale College class of 2022 first-year class profile, approximately 57 percent of incoming first years attended public school, 12 percent attended international high schools while the remainder of the class, 31 percent, attended private U.S. schools — either boarding, independent or religious institutions.
In interviews with the News, many inductees stated that they thought the number of students who had attended private schools would be higher. Still, many students interviewed by the News described their public schools as magnet schools or “a public school in a private area.”
“High school–wise,” Torres said. “[The Phi Beta Kappa inductees] all had very similar high school experiences.”
The Alpha of Connecticut chapter of Phi Beta Kappa was founded in April 1780 and is the second oldest chapter in the organization, behind only the founding chapter at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. The organization was founded Dec. 5, 1776, by students who thought “that a new nation required new institutions” and “were committed to intellectual fellowship shaped by the values of personal freedom, scientific inquiry, liberty of conscience, and creative endeavor,” according to the national website. Originally, it was envisioned as “a secret society that would give members the freedom to discuss any topic they chose,” according to its website. But as years went by, the criteria for getting in began to incorporate grades.
Rishi Mirchandani ’20, who took time off of Yale, said he was not surprised when he was told he would be inducted into Phi Beta Kappa during his junior year in December 2017. While he said getting inducted had never really been a goal of his, once he heard the admissions criteria — that admittance was based on percentage of straight-A grades — he knew he would get in.
“If you have the highest percentage of A’s, then you’re guaranteed to get in,” Mirchandani said.
He was one of just 12 juniors to be inducted into the society in December 2017. At Yale, students in each class can be inducted into the organization at three points throughout their years at the University. According to the Yale chapter’s website, the members of the first cohort, of “ten or twelve” students, are elected in the fall of their junior year. This number is deliberately kept low “in accordance with over two centuries of local tradition.” A second election occurs in a student’s senior year, and a final election happens at commencement. By the third election, membership in the group is increased to the point where it does not exceed 10 percent of the graduating class. According to the Yale chapter’s website, election is determined by “the percentage of a student’s Yale grades earned in straight A.”
Multiple sources told the News that to be inducted in junior year, students need “pretty much perfect grades.”
According to the Associate Dean of Yale College and Dean of Academic Programs George Levesque, measuring “academic achievement” across different majors is challenging, yielding an imperfect election system.
“Some institutions ask faculty to nominate students and write letters of recommendation, but we worry that this method can be overly subjective, introduces greater possibility of bias, and is impractical at a place of Yale’s size,” Levesque said in an email to the News.
Devyn Rigsby ’19, undergraduate president of Phi Beta Kappa, echoed Levesque’s sentiments, saying that the lack of faculty recommendation “eliminates certain biases in inducting people.”
Still, other students questioned the impact of the rigid grade-based assessment system. So-Hyeon Park ’19, who was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa this past December, said that the people celebrated at the society were “not the biggest achievers” at Yale.
“It’s a pretty old form of measuring academic ability and what you’ve achieved,” Park said. “[It] usually ends up being not very representative of the challenges people faced while studying.”
Margaret Clark, graduate president of Yale’s Phi Beta Kappa chapter and head of Trumbull College, said that the issue with changing the metric is handling “subjectivity.”
She added that since she assumed her position, no one has come to her to voice their concerns about the metric.
“There are qualitative factors that could be taken into account,” she said. “Not all the straight A’s have the same value at Yale. A lot of accomplishment, especially in the arts, happens outside of the classroom. … If people have concerns about how this might be done more fairly, I encourage them to come to the members of the board.”
ELITE HIGH SCHOOLS
At the December Phi Beta Kappa induction, Clark began her speech by saying she was “thankful” for the diversity of the honorees. But she soon questioned whether the students receiving the Phi Beta Kappa honor were representative of the University’s larger student body.
“Some students are not here because their high schools did not prepare them as well for Yale,” she said.
The data collected by the News reinforces that notion.
The News gathered data for 38 of the 40 students from the graduating classes of 2020, 2019 and 2018 elected in the first round of Phi Beta Kappa elections. Eighteen of them went to public schools, while 13 went to private schools. Seven went to preparatory schools outside of the United States. The average tuition of a private school attended by the inductees is $41,313. The average of the median household incomes -— including those of non-family households — in the ZIP codes of the public high schools the inductees attended in this cohort is $93,556.
The News also collected data for 50 of the 61 students in the second election for the class of 2019. Of these students, 26 went to public schools, 17 went to private schools and 7 are international students. Of the private schools the second-round election students attended, the average tuition was $43,820. The average of the median household income in the ZIP code of the public high schools the inductees attended in this cohort is $108,384.
When the News contacted the Yale Admissions Office to inquire about the median family income of Yale students, the office said that it did not have that data available. Levesque declined to comment on these numbers. According to statistics from the United States Census Bureau, the median household income in 2016 was approximately $58,000. The average tuition for a private high school in the United States is approximately $15,000 for the 2018–2019 academic year, as reported by the Private School Review.
When asked about her speech, Clark told the News that she does not think everyone “peaks academically” at the same time. She said that high schools “differ,” which can make the first semester of college more or less difficult for some students, affecting their grades. She noted that later in her speech, she said that some students were in the room “despite their circumstances” and that the people in attendance should be particularly proud of them.
Mirchandani said he attended high school that was public and socioeconomically diverse but situated in a more affluent area than its surroundings. He believes that his high school gave him a better chance of acceptance to and success at Yale than neighboring schools located in struggling communities. Nonetheless, Mirchandani said his school lacked the resources and rigor of elite private schools, so the transition to Yale was rather challenging.
“I think it’s just a fact of life that people who are able to access higher quality education before Yale will be able to do higher quality academic work,” Mirchandani said.
He added that while he does see inequity as a problem, he does not think there “should be an adjustment” for measuring academic achievement for Phi Beta Kappa inductees relative to students’ backgrounds. He noted that since the class sizes of Phi Beta Kappa are so small, it is “only fair to have a fully objective and transparent selection process — even though any objective selection criterion would inevitably be flawed in some way.”
Kevin Bendesky ’19, who was inducted in December 2018 and is also a staff reporter for the News, said that he had attended a “public high school in a private area” — one with Advanced Placement courses as well as an International Baccalaureate program. He said that he was grateful for the opportunity to attend his high school in Rosemont, Pennsylvania, but that he acknowledged the advantage he had after attending the school.
“The high school was public, but you had to pay to live there and that was an exclusion in and of itself,” Bendesky said. “I am very thankful that I got to live in this very nice area, and I recognize that there is an exclusive nature of this very nice area.”
THE HONORS CEREMONY
When Clark delivered a speech to the inductees, their friends and families in December, she congratulated students on their academic accomplishments at Yale as well as their hard work in high school that allowed them to gain admittance into the University. Clark said Yale could not claim credit for their prior academic achievements.
“It’s you, your parents, your family,” Clark said. “Your elementary, middle and high school teachers. Your friends, your coaches and your mentors who got you here. I not only congratulate you and thank you, I thank all of them as well as all the individual teachers you had before you ever got here.”
Clark also expressed her admiration for students battling financial obstacles during their time at Yale.
Attendees interviewed by the News said they enjoyed the speech. Bendesky said the speech “forced anybody who was basking in the glow of this title to reckon with the fact that there were factors beyond them that got them there.”
Yet, some inductees chose to not even attend the ceremony. Kevin Salinas ’19 said that he just signed a form and received his Phi Beta Kappa pin on his own time instead.
He said he had attended an opening reception for inductees earlier in the semester after receiving an email invitation for the event. He went there, looked around the room and texted his friends, saying that there were little to no underrepresented people of color in the room.
He added that the divide in the room highlighted not the shortcomings of Phi Beta Kappa specifically, but rather an institutional reality of Yale in general, showing that the University itself does not provide the opportunity for all students to adjust academically.
“There was a sort of wall because I myself am not from an affluent background either … after all these years of being in a ‘woke’ environment at Yale,” Salinas said. “Getting to that space, it was confirming everything pretty much. … Yale is a very diverse place, but the pockets within it are not equally diverse.”
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Clarification, Feb. 18: A previous version of this article did not give the full context of Mirchandani’s quotes on the Phi Beta Kappa selection process. While he does not believe there “should be an adjustment” for measuring academic achievement for Phi Beta Kappa inductees relative to students’ backgrounds, he noted that since the class sizes of Phi Beta Kappa are so small, it is “only fair to have a fully objective and transparent selection process — even though any objective selection criterion would inevitably be flawed in some way.” The News apologizes for inadvertently misrepresenting the intent of Mirchandani’s statements.