The letters start arriving at the homes of high school students in early spring.
They’ve been nominated to Who’s Who Among American High School Students, which “is a very special honor” achieved by “only 5 percent of high school students across the country.” Or named to the National Honor Roll, which means “you have attained a level of achievement shared by a very small percentage of all students in the U.S.” Or have become an All- American Scholar, “which represents the elite scholars across our nation.”
Thousands of students send in their biographical sketches, and sometimes their pictures, too, for publication in the annual books. And many proud parents and grandparents eagerly fork over $40 to $60 for a copy of the tomes.
“This important historical registry will serve as a permanent record of your accomplishments that will last forever,” says the All-American Scholar Web site.
In addition, the publishers offer to send news releases listing nominees, which are sometimes published verbatim in local newspapers. And they say nominees are eligible for college scholarships.
But skeptics say the publications are little more than appeals to vanity and are hardly the impressive honors the publishers make them out to be. Besides accepting nominations from high school teachers and counselors, the publishers also pitch to students whose names are acquired from lists compiled by marketers, critics say.
“They are trying to sell books,” said Marybeth Kravets, a college counselor at Deerfield High School in Illinois, who says students and parents often ask her about the sales pitches from student- recognition programs. “I tell parents to think hard about how they are using their children’s future college funds.”
Ms. Kravets notes that the publishers do offer at least some scholarship money, and that no one is required to buy the books to be included. But she advises against including such honors on college-admissions applications.
“To admissions people, these things are not going to be an important factor on a student’s application,” she said.
Jon Reider, the director of college counseling at San Francisco University High School and a former admissions officer at Stanford University, said he advises students to simply toss out the sales pitches. He believes the publishers thrive on the myth that “you can earn certain credentials and join the American meritocracy.”
Recent discussions on CollegeConfidential.com, an Internet listserv for student and parent questions about college admissions, were even harsher in their assessments of student-recognition programs. “I definitely wouldn’t use it on an Ivy or other selective school application, unless you are trying to intentionally create the impression you are a naive bumpkin,” said one recent posting.
Said another: “The few people I know who have these kinds of Who’s Who and Honor Roll books grow more and more embarrassed by the books over the years.”
Perhaps the best known of the programs is Who’s Who Among American High School Students, which is unrelated to the publisher of the 105-year-old Who’s Who in America reference book.
The high school book was started in 1967 by Paul and Ann Krouse, a suburban Chicago couple who say on the company’s Web site that they wanted to counter the negative image of teenagers in that era by recognizing “high-achieving, goal-oriented students.”
In 2001, the Krouses sold the company, Educational Communications Inc., to Castle Harlan Inc., a New York City-based private equity firm that also owns the high school yearbook company Taylor Publishing and Commemorative Brands Inc., an Austin, Texas-based concern specializing in class rings. ECI is now part of Commemorative Brands.
Jefferey Fix, the general manager of ECI, said he has heard the criticisms of student-recognition books for years. But he said his company takes pride in its products.
“I think educators understand the program and what we are trying to achieve with it, which is to honor and recognize students and encourage them to go on to higher education,” he said.
The company has awarded more than $3 million in scholarships since its inception and now awards about $250,000 per year. The awards have traditionally been $1,000 per student, but this year ECI will give a few $6,000 awards, Mr. Fix said.
Last year, The Wall Street Journal reported that ECI purchased names from the National Research Center for College and University Admissions, a Lee’s Summit, Mo.-based company that asks teachers to give students a survey seeking names, addresses, grade point averages, and other data. ECI acknowledged to the Journal that it had obtained student names from National Research. Mr. Fix declined to delve further into that matter.
Besides its flagship student book, which costs about $55 if a student’s picture is included, ECI has added other titles over the years, such as a high school athletes’ edition and Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers. The latter volume, first published in 1990, is made up largely of teachers nominated by recipients of the student honor.
The teachers’ book also puts ECI in somewhat more direct competition with Marquis Who’s Who, the publisher of Who’s Who in America, Who Was Who in America, and other volumes. Marquis, which is now part of the Anglo-Dutch publishing giant Reed-Elsevier Inc., has also published a volume called Who’s Who in American Education, which includes not just teachers, but also other educators and policymakers.
Who’s Who in American Education has been on a hiatus since its 1996-97 edition, but the company is publishing a new volume later this year, said Fred Marks, the senior managing director at Marquis Who’s Who, which is based in New Providence, N.J.
“There have been requests to bring it back, and we want to be involved in such a publication because of the growing importance of teachers and education,” he said.
The company distances itself from what it considers the vanity publications on the market by stressing the wide acceptance of its Who’s Who books as library reference volumes. But it acknowledges that there is also a market for selling its books to those who make it into them. The new Who’s Who in American Education volume will sell for $235, Mr. Marks said.
Asked if there have been trademark or copyright disputes over the use of “who’s who,” Mr. Marks said U.S. courts have ruled that the phrase alone was common enough in the language that it could not be protected. But Marquis has gone after competitors who came up with products such as Who’s Who in the United States (as opposed to “America” in Marquis’ title), and ECI once successfully sued the publisher of a volume called Who’s Who in High School Football.
No to Joe Blow
Name recognition, or confusion, appears to be a subtle part of the plan for some publishers.
The nonprofit National Honor Society warns on its Web site that some schools have confused it with National Honor Roll, a for-profit concern based in Washington.
On its Web site, National Honor Roll says that anyone concerned whether “this is a valid program” can call its offices with questions. A representative told Education Week last week to e-mail questions to the publisher, Lynn Romeo. She didn’t respond.
At All-American Scholar, which is published by a Lexington, Ky.-based company called the United States Achievement Academy, manager Robin Tomlinson said: “We’re well known around the United States. There’s nothing we’re trying to hide.”
She said the company does not buy student names from marketers’ lists and accepts only those who have been nominated by educators or were on their schools’ honor rolls.
“Teachers get strict criteria to follow,” she said. “It just can’t be Joe Blow.”
The All-American Scholar books sell for $59.95 with a picture included, Ms. Tomlinson said, with some of those fees going to cover scholarships. The company says on its Web site that it has granted more than $740,290 in scholarships since its inception in 1980, or an average of about $32,000 a year.
While the sales pitches for student-recognition programs reach a new cohort of students and their parents each year, some families are just saying no.
David Loutrel, a father in Anchorage, Alaska, recalls that his daughter, Sarah, received nominations last year for Who’s Who Among American High School Students and National Honor Roll.
“We held on to them about as long as it took to read over the letters and then drop them in the trash can,” he said. “Everyone likes it when their kid gets an honor. But when that honor comes with a price tag, it is sort of amusing.”