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National Honor Society

Formation and Growth, Chapter Formation and Membership, Chapter Activities, National Control and Services, Conferences, Scholarship Programs

The National Honor Society of Secondary Schools (NHS) was established in 1921 by the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) to recognize and encourage scholastically outstanding high school students. Its founders wanted to form a society modeled after Phi Beta Kappa, the undergraduate collegiate honor society. The National Junior Honor Society of Secondary Schools (NJHS) was established in 1929 to honor younger, middle-level students for similar reasons.

The founding committee viewed education as a total experience and the new honor society as more than just an honor roll–they emphasized the promotion of scholarship, along with leadership, service, and character, in the original constitution. As stated in the 1997 revised constitution, the purposes of the National Honor Society are to create an enthusiasm for scholarship, to stimulate a desire to render service, to promote leadership, and to develop character in the students of secondary schools. The constitution of NJHS is similar to that of the high school honor society, except for the addition of citizenship as a fifth criterion for membership.

Formation and Growth

The National Honor Society is one of the most widely recognized cocurricular student activities in American high schools. The student activity program of the secondary school, essentially a development of the twentieth century, has been accepted as a vital and integral part of education. This status of student activities was re-emphasized by NASSP in its 1996 report, Breaking Ranks: Changing an American Institution: "The high school will promote cocurricular activities as integral to an education, providing opportunities for all students that support and extend academic learning. The concept of 'extracurricular' serves no useful purpose…. We proposeto scrap this outmoded term and instead call these activities 'cocurricular,' emphasizing that they are integral to the educational program" (p. 18).

However, during the first part of the twentieth century, leading educators expressed considerable concern over the great amount of attention given to social and athletic achievements, and over the lack of emphasis placed on scholarship. In response to this concern, a number of educators organized local and regional societies to recognize academic excellence. Among the first was Phi Beta Sigma, founded in 1903 at South Side Academy in Chicago, Illinois. In 1906 the Cum Laude Society was organized at Tome School in Port Deposit, Maryland. By 1919 other honor societies had been established in New York City, Los Angeles, western Massachusetts, and Fargo, North Dakota. The organization of the National Honor Society in 1921 was a logical outgrowth of this developing interest.

Efforts to form a national organization were initiated at the 1919 annual convention of the National Association of Secondary School Principals in Chicago. The first chapter of the new society was chartered in 1921 at the Fifth Avenue High School in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the school at which Edward Rynearson, considered the father and founder of NHS, was principal. The first official charter for the NJHS was awarded in 1929 to Webster Groves High School in Missouri.

Immediate acceptance led to continuous growth in the number of chapters and the size of the membership. Fourteen chapters were chartered during 1922; by 1930 there were 962 chapters of NHS and 128 chapters of NJHS. In 2001, the national office recognized 13,553 chapters of NHS and 5,316 chapters of NJHS. It is estimated that active membership in the two societies exceeds 1 million students per year. Chapters exist in all fifty states, the District of Columbia, all U.S. territories and possessions, and in American schools in more than forty foreign countries. Throughout the history of NHS and NJHS, membership has reflected a gender breakdown of two females to one male.

In 1921 an official emblem for the society was created in the form of a keystone and flaming torch. Widely recognized, the keystone bears at its base the letters C, S, L, and S, which stand for the four fundamental virtues of character, scholarship, leadership, and service. The torch symbolized the search for truth and is also the emblem of the National Junior Honor Society. The colors of NHS are blue and gold; navy blue and white are the colors for NJHS. The official flower for NHS is the yellow rose; for NJHS, the white rose.

Chapter Formation and Membership

Any public or approved or accredited private secondary school in the United States may apply for a chapter by submitting an application and agreeing to operate under the society's constitutional guidelines. Each chapter remains on the active list with the national office as long as it submits the annual affiliation payment. No individual fees are required of students, although local chapters can establish chapter dues, not to exceed ten dollars per member per year.

One or more faculty members (the chapter advisers) are appointed by the principal to administer each chapter. To assist in the selection, discipline, and dismissal of members, the principal also appoints a five-member faculty council. Specific guidelines are provided in the national handbook for the faculty councils to assist them in their duties. According to the society's constitution, the principal reserves authority over all actions of the chapter.

To be eligible for active membership in a chapter, students must have a cumulative grade point average of 3.0 (on a 4.0 scale), 85, B, or a cumulative average that is an equivalent standard of excellence. Local chapters may raise this average to meet local standards of excellence as long as such standards are applied fairly and consistently. National guidelines indicate that students may be considered as candidates in their sophomore, junior, or senior year; however, chapters are given the flexibility to limit candidacy to one or more of these years. Candidates must be enrolled at the school for a minimum of one semester, although exceptions can be made for transfer students.

Once this scholastic eligibility has been determined, candidates are then considered for membership on the basis of their leadership, service, and character. To ascertain how each candidate compares to the chapter standards in these three areas, the selection process recommended in the National Honor Society Handbook (1997) indicates that all candidates submit an information sheet detailing their relevant experiences. The local chapter may add additional qualifications or steps in the selection process. Once sufficient information has been gathered and reviewed, the faculty council votes on each candidate. Candidates become members at an induction ceremony. For the National Junior Honor Society, the selection process is the same, although membership is limited to second-semester sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth grades, and includes citizenship as the fifth criterion needed for selection.

All local chapters are required to publish the local selection process, including the standards for the membership criteria, for all students, parents, and faculty. The national office provides information concerning these procedures on its website and offers the national handbooks for sale to the public.

Chapter Activities

The most important ceremony in the life of any chapter of the National Honor Society is the induction ceremony at which new members of the chapter are publicly recognized. Traditionally this ceremony has included a candle-lighting component, during which the flame from the central candle (the lamp of knowledge) is used to light four candles, one for each of the four core values of the society.

At the induction ceremony, new members are often given symbols of their new membership that can include a membership pin, card, or certificate, and are asked to sign the official roll of members. A suggested format for this ceremony is provided to all chapters, but the national office mandates no single format or script, preferring to encourage chapters to compose a ceremony that has local meaning and significance.

For other activities, the rules and regulations of NHS permit considerable latitude for local chapter initiative. Though no schedule of meetings is mandated by the national guidelines, all chapter meetings must be open and under the direction of one or more professional staff members of the school.

All chapters are required to undertake an annual service project. With the growth of a new volunteer service ethic among students and educators in America during the 1990s, NHS and NJHS members have been leading contributors, in service hours, to the improvement of their schools and communities. According to the society's annual reports for 1999–2000, the average chapter commits more than twenty-five hours per member of service to the school and community through an average of more than four projects per year. The total of service contributions by NHS and NJHS members exceeds 500,000 hours per year. This high degree of involvement indicates that chapters are living up to the society's motto, Noblesse Oblige, or, loosely translated, "to whom much is given, much is expected."

Typical service projects include tutoring programs for underclassmen, reading development for elementary students, fundraising for local or national charities, blood drives, serving meals at local food banks and soup kitchens, and servicing the needs of the elderly in the community. Regardless of the nature of the activity, all service projects and other activities of the chapter, including fundraising activities, meet the following criteria: they fulfill a need within the school or community; they have the support and sanction of the administration and the faculty; they are appropriate and educationally defensible; and they are well planned, organized, and executed.

In order to undertake these responsibilities efficiently, most chapters elect officers to lead the chapter and assist the adviser during the year. An important responsibility for chapter officers is ensuring that all chapter members maintain their membership obligations and live up to the standards of the chapter by being positive role models on campus and in the community.

National Control and Services

The board of directors of NASSP is also the governing board of the National Honor Society. General operational control is vested in the NHS/NJHS National Council, composed of ten principals and advisers. The executive director of NASSP is an ex officio member of the national council, and the NASSP director of student activities serves ex officio as secretary to the council. National activities of NHS are coordinated by the national office staff, located at the headquarters of NASSP in Reston, Virginia.

In 2001, twenty-two organizations existed at the state level supporting NHS and NJHS activities. These organizations are all affiliated with the national office, but operate independently. Whereas on the national level, chapters are required to maintain an active affiliation with the national office, participation in state activities is voluntary.


In 1993 the first national conference of the NHS was held in the city that hosted the first chapter of NHS, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The annual meeting is open to student members and advisers of NHS and NJHS, providing motivation and leadership training for students and professional development services for advisers.

In addition, in 2000, the national office expanded its regional student council leadership conferences (the National Association of Student Councils is also sponsored by NASSP) to include NHS and NJHS members and advisers. State conferences for NHS are held annually in those states maintaining a state association.

Scholarship Programs

NHS scholarships are awarded each year to outstanding graduating senior members of local chapters. NASSP organized this program in 1945, and since then more than $10 million has been dispensed. Two hundred scholarships of $1,000 each were distributed to the membership in 2001. In addition to the NHS Scholarship, the national office administers the following scholarship and award programs: the Principal's Leadership Award, sponsored by Herff Jones, Inc.; the Prudential Spirit of Community Awards; and the Wendy's High School Heisman Awards.

In the early twenty-first century, because it is the oldest, largest, and most prestigious school-based student recognition program in the country, the National Honor Society is considered the highest honor that can be bestowed upon students in secondary schools.



HOOTON, COLBURN E. 1964 "The National Honor Society: Its Establishment and Growth, 1921 to 1963." Student Life Highlights 37:1–5.

NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF SECONDARY SCHOOL PRINCIPALS. 1995. Breaking Ranks: Changing an American Institution. Reston, VA: National Association of Secondary School Principals.

NATIONAL HONOR SOCIETY OF SECONDARY SCHOOLS. 1997. National Honor Society Handbook. Reston, VA: National Association of Secondary School Principals.

NATIONAL JUNIOR HONOR SOCIETY OF SECONDARY SCHOOLS. 1998. National Junior Honor Society Handbook. Reston, VA: National Association of Secondary School Principals.


NATIONAL HONOR SOCIETY. 2002. <http://dsa.principals.org/nhs>.


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