1910-1918: A New Society
Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society (PTK) traces its beginnings to Kappa Phi Omicron, an honorary group chartered with just six members in 1910 at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri. In the years that follow, Kappa Phi Omicron is one of many honorary groups in the state. In the spring of 1918, students and college presidents of eight Missouri junior colleges for women unite at Stephens College to organize one new honor society with a common mission. They choose the name Phi Theta Kappa and model the newly formed organization after the prestigious senior college honor society Phi Beta Kappa.
1918-1919: The First Chapters
In its inaugural year, Phi Theta Kappa establishes eight chapters at women’s colleges across Missouri. The charter colleges, Hardin, Stephens, Christian, Lindenwood, Cottey, Howard Payne, William Woods, and Central, draw Greek letters out of a hat to give the first PTK chapters their names.
Hardin College draws the Alpha Chapter; however, when the college later becomes a baccalaureate-granting institution, the Alpha name is moved to the chapter at Stephens College. The Alpha Chapter remains active at Stephens College until it is retired in 1937, when the institution becomes baccalaureate-granting. The chapter is reactivated later in 2019. Today, Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri, and Cottey College in Nevada, Missouri, are the only charter colleges with still-active chapters.
1920-1924: Symbols of Honor
As the organization grows, its leaders develop symbols to represent the values of its members. In 1921 the first pin is designed — a blue triangle containing the three Greek letters surrounded by pearls. Today’s international officers receive a replica of the original pin when their terms are completed.
In 1923 the Epsilon Chapter at Cottey College proposes the official song of the Society, which is still performed at induction ceremonies and the annual convention.
Phi Theta Kappa’s official seal is created in 1924 and today graces member certificates and diplomas.
1925-1929: Beyond Missouri
In the 1920s, more community colleges spring up across the country, and Phi Theta Kappa expands beyond Missouri. The Kappa Chapter at St. Joseph Junior College in Missouri becomes the first chapter at a coeducational school in 1926, and Phi Theta Kappa adds its first male members. The Mu Chapter at Northeast Junior College in Oklahoma becomes the first chapter chartered outside Missouri.
On November 19, 1929, the American Association of Junior Colleges (now the American Association of Community Colleges or AACC) recognizes Phi Theta Kappa as the official national honor society for junior colleges. This distinction transforms Phi Theta Kappa into an honor society focused not only on academic recognition, but also on the enrichment and growth of its members. Membership is now to be conferred to students beginning with their freshman year.
1930: A New Symbol
Phi Theta Kappa introduces the Golden Key as the Society’s new official pin. It features the three Greek letters Phi, Theta, and Kappa, representing wisdom, aspiration, and purity. A band of oak leaves denotes stability and strength of character; a band of laurel signifies achievement and success. At the top, the head of Athena, the goddess of learning, is featured, and at the base, the Greek letters forming the words meaning light, the light of learning, and knowledge.
1930-1940: The Mosal Era
Margaret James is inducted as a member at Whitworth College in Brookhaven, Mississippi, and in 1930 she is installed as Phi Theta Kappa’s first elected National President. In 1935 Phi Theta Kappa elects Margaret James Mosal (now married) National Secretary, the only elected position not held by students. Mosal moves PTK operations to the back of her husband’s hardware store in Canton, Mississippi. All of the organization’s records are contained in a single card catalog drawer about the size of a shoebox. Phi Theta Kappa thrives under Mosal’s leadership.
1942-1943: The War Years
World War II temporarily slows the organization’s growth. In 1942 Phi Theta Kappa does its part in the war efforts and cancels national conventions for three years to restrict travel amid gas rationing. But, the Society still finds a way to offer opportunities to its members. In 1942 Phi Theta Kappa introduces the first National Study Program — the first unified honors program and a precursor to today’s Honors Study Topic and Honors in Action program.
1944-1947: The GI Bill
In 1944 Congress enacts the GI Bill, and community and junior college enrollment surges. By 1947 the number of U.S. community colleges rises to 328, up from just 58 three years earlier. Enrollment in these institutions, which provides the bulk of job-training opportunities for returning veterans, balloons from 251,290 in 1944 to 500,000 in 1947. These record numbers set the scene for Phi Theta Kappa’s membership to grow exponentially.
1951-1957: Conventions and Awards
By 1951 national conventions return in a big way. Phi Theta Kappa introduces workshops, and chapters compete for awards for the first time — including Best Chapter and the Mosal Cup for best scrapbook. The Tri-Forum Trophy for best use of the National Study Program is added in 1955; the Travel Award, for the chapter traveling the farthest and bringing the largest delegation to convention, is added in 1957; and Outstanding Male and Female Sponsor Awards are presented beginning in the mid-1960s.
1957-1962: College Presidents
As Phi Theta Kappa’s programs grow, so does its relationships with college presidents. In 1957 Dr. Michael Bennett, president of St. Petersburg College in Florida, becomes an honorary member of his chapter, and the Bennett Award for retiring college presidents is named in his honor. In 1960 AAJC invites Dr. Mosal to host the first Phi Theta Kappa Presidents Breakfast at its annual conference, now an annual tradition for both organizations.
The development of regional organizations soon offers new opportunities for participation. In 1962 the first regional meeting is held in Denver, Colorado, in conjunction with the national meeting of AAJC. Chapters from Colorado, Nebraska, and Wyoming (the Empire Region) attend.
1964-1969: Breaking Boundaries
America is building almost one community college per week, and students are rushing to fill them. By 1964 Phi Theta Kappa outgrows the home Dr. Mosal shared with her husband and daughter, so the organization builds its first designated national office. In 1966, PTK establishes its first Board of Directors, and Dr. Mosal becomes the Society’s first Executive Director.
In 1969 Anthony Sadberry becomes the first African-American student elected to serve as a national officer. He would later serve as a member of Phi Theta Kappa’s Board of Directors
1968-1969: Honors Institute is Born
In 1968 Phi Theta Kappa celebrates its 50th anniversary — something special is needed to mark the occasion. On a cross-country train ride, Dr. Mosal and Associate Director Gayle Wyatt create Honors Institute. Modeled after Oxford University’s seminar group-based learning, it would grow to become the preeminent honors programming conference for community college students.
The first Honors Institute was held at Endicott College in Massachusetts, and the program was based on the National Study Topic, “Our Cultural Heritage: 1800-1860.”
Phi Theta Kappa alumnus and astronaut Fred Haise takes his member pin on the Apollo XIII mission in 1970 and returns to Earth after a harrowing mission.
In 1975 Dr. Jack Guistwhite charters new territory for Phi Theta Kappa by establishing the first transfer scholarship for members at Florida Atlantic University. The idea quickly spreads, and today more than 800 universities offer more than $250 million in Phi Theta Kappa transfer scholarships.
1981-1986: Entering the World Stage
In 1981 President Ronald Reagan appoints Phi Theta Kappa alumna Dr. Jeane Kirkpatrick as the first American woman to serve as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, and Phi Theta Kappa launches its first National Service Project, raising funds for the restoration of the Statue of Liberty. By 1986 Phi Theta Kappa grows its staff and purchases the office’s first computers. That same year, alumna and oceanographer Dr. Sylvia Earle sets a women’s record for depth diving. Earle and Amb. Kirkpatrick would later be named Distinguished Alumni.
1987-1988: The Hallmarks
In 1988 Stephen Gilmore is elected Phi Theta Kappa’s first African-American National President and becomes the first student to address a general session of the AACC annual convention.
By this time, Phi Theta Kappa has chapters in all 50 states. And, we also have our first National Scholar, Todd Fentress, who is honored at the nation’s capital by President George H.W. Bush and the First Lady.
1989-1990: On the Move
In 1990 the organization moves from Canton to Jackson, Mississippi, and its students and programs garner national attention. Phi Theta Kappa establishes the Distinguished Student Scholar Program, now known as the All-USA Academic Team, and a $1.8 million grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation funds the new Leadership Development Studies Program.
1991: Global Presence
Phi Theta Kappa establishes its first international chapter — the Alpha Tau Delta Chapter at Medicine Hat College in Alberta, Canada, in 1991. The Society will continue to charter chapters in U.S. territories and eventually develops a presence in 10 sovereign nations.
1992: Scholarship Development
Scholarships for Phi Theta Kappa members multiply in the 1990s as other member benefits increase simultaneously. At the 1992 annual convention, Phi Theta Kappa presents the first Guistwhite Scholarships (named in honor of Dr. Jack and Margaret Guistwhite) to members to use in the pursuit of a bachelor’s degree.
1993-1995: One Million Strong
In 1993 Phi Theta Kappa celebrates its 75th anniversary and inducts the one-millionth member, Stephanie Hock, at the annual convention. As the number of members increase, the Society explores new avenues and partnerships to provide students with more recognition, scholarships, and professional opportunities.
In 1994 Phi Theta Kappa publishes the inaugural issue of Nota Bene, the first journal of its kind to showcase the writing of students at associate degree-granting colleges. The Society also launches a recognition program for advisors and enhances their professional opportunities through programs like the Faculty Scholar Conference.
1996-1999: A Place to Call Home
As the new century approaches, Phi Theta Kappa raises funds to construct a new headquarters facility in Jackson, Mississippi. Ground is broken in 1996, and the Center’s dedication ceremony in 1997, featuring Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick as keynote speaker, is broadcast to chapters around the world by satellite.
2000-2006: The Service Generation
Phi Theta Kappa member Danny Correa is killed during the events of 9/11, and many members of the Phi Theta Kappa family suffer some kind of loss. Chapters around the country remember those who died, volunteer to help, and raise $15,000 to restore Borough of Manhattan Community College, which temporarily closes following damage from the attack. The Society continues volunteer service throughout the decade, from collecting food and books at graduation ceremonies and raising nearly $4 million for the American Cancer Society to partnering with Keep America Beautiful and participating in hurricane relief efforts.
2007-2010: Member Benefits
Phi Theta Kappa introduces a revolutionary tool to assist students with college transfer in 2007. CollegeFish.org, funded by a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, helps students navigate the transfer process by identifying best-fit colleges, providing information on scholarships, and reminding them of important deadlines.
In 2010 Phi Theta Kappa is the only student organization to sign “Democracy’s Colleges: Call to Action,” an effort to increase the number of Americans earning college degrees by 50 percent over the next decade. The Community College Completion Corps (C4) develops as a result, raising awareness of the issue and prompting thousands to “commit to complete.”
2010-2015: National Recognition
Phi Theta Kappans draw media and government attention as they sign pledges to complete college, take their message to statehouses across the country, and receive news coverage of their efforts. Seven members and alumni attend the first White House Summit on Community Colleges in 2010.
Phi Theta Kappa increases awareness of its power to change lives — and communities — for the better as corporations, foundations, and individuals provide financial support to the new Phi Theta Kappa Foundation. That same year, the organization presents the first 10 Hites Scholars with $75,000 — the largest scholarships ever offered specifically for members — funded by the Hites Family Foundation.
2016-2018: Workforce Training and Second Chances
In 2016 Phi Theta Kappa launches its first scholarship and benefit to help workforce students cover the cost of certification and training materials: The Hurst Review NCLEX® Scholarship for nursing students. In 2017 Phi Theta Kappa makes history by opening membership to those who are currently incarcerated or on probation and seeking an education.
Also in 2017, a grant from The Coca-Cola Foundation leads to the creation of the New Century Workforce Pathway Scholarship, which recognizes the top career-technical student in each state with a scholarship.
2018-Beyond: A New Day
In 2018 Phi Theta Kappa celebrated its 100th anniversary. The Society has grown from its humble beginnings to boast more than 3.5 million members in the United States and 10 sovereign nations.
Also in 2018, Phi Theta Kappa published Civic Scholar: Phi Theta Kappa Journal of Undergraduate Research. This is the first journal of its kind to publish research by community college students that resulted in action-oriented projects that positively impacted their communities. In 2021, the inaugural issue of Change Makers: Phi Theta Kappa Journal of Student Leadership was published, highlighting the work of community college students who developed leadership- and service-based projects to generate positive changes on their campuses.
The Phi Theta Kappa Foundation awards $1.5 million in scholarships to members each year, and four-year college partners now offer $250 million in transfer scholarships exclusively for Phi Theta Kappa members. The PTK Edge suite of free online courses helps students develop key skills to successfully transfer to a four-year college and gain employment.
The Society looks to the future with a renewed dedication to help all students succeed, regardless of their past mistakes or their end goals, as it continues to expand opportunities and accessibility.