What if you could go to college and (almost) never go to class?
At Penn State, there’s a downtown business where students — slackers and hardworkers alike — can walk in, buy class notes from their courses, and head immediately to the bar.
The craziest part? It’s all completely legal.
Welcome to Nittany Notes, the small company that launched in 1984 with notes for 25 classes and has grown into a service that provides notes for 325 classes that thousands of Penn State students rely on every year.
Clearly, Penn Staters have already thought this through.
First time ever getting nittany notes. Only been to the class once this semester #senioryearprobs
— Brandon (@B_Wall24) February 12, 2015
Reads finance for a page, says fuck it nittany notes will be more productive anyway #netflixtime
— David Finucane (@DFinuke) April 28, 2014
A Penn State tradition
I can’t remember who was the first person to tell me about Nittany Notes when I was a freshman at Penn State. All I remember is hearing about a place where I could buy class notes, thinking “how can that be real?” and running, not walking, there.
Almost every one of Penn State’s 40,000 students understands that some of the people carrying around a bunch of red papers — they’re that color so they can’t be copied at Kinko’s (or anywhere else) — are undoubtedly using them to skip class.
But owner Tom Matis tells Billy Penn that they’re mostly used by good students to supplement what they’re already learning. He said that over the years, he’s collected upwards of 15,000 surveys from Nittany Notes users. Of them, just 16 percent reported that they’d skipped some or all of their classes because they’d spent some money buying notes taken by someone else. (That’s still 2,400 students so…)
When students purchase Nittany Notes from the store, they sign a contract saying that they understand the notes aren’t meant to be a substitute for going to class, and the store isn’t responsible if you skip out and then fail your exam.
Of course, that contract can feel meaningless for many students who are enrolled in courses that could have upwards of 700 students with next to no personal interaction between student and teacher.
“A car is a great vehicle for transportation to get from A to B, but somebody can speed and misuse that and hurt people,” Matis said. “It’s the same thing with notes. You can hurt yourself by not going to class, and you’re missing out on the educational process, but that’s up to you.”
Penn State vs. Nittany Notes
So how does it work? Where do the notes come from? Nittany Notes pays about 150 students with high GPAs (the average grade point average is nearly 3.7) to take notes each semester. And the fact that students are probably skipping class has created a tumultuous relationship between the business and the University.
Matis’ Nittany Notes survived a review by the University Faculty Senate in the 1990s that found that his business was legal, even after dozens of professors had claimed the service was illicitly selling their intellectual property. The university’s lawyers found that a professor’s intellectual property can no longer be considered theirs once it becomes oral in a lecture.
Other instructors were just irked that Nittany Notes was giving students an excuse to nurse their hangovers a bit or skip class to study for something else. Professors at the university know the notes are attractive to students, as they can sell for as little as $2.50 a day, $10 for a pack that’ll help you study for an exam or somewhere around $40 for a semester’s worth of notes. For the slackers and the geniuses alike, it can be worth it.
The outside of the Nittany Notes location on the 100 block of Pugh Street
But just as bizarre as the model may seem is the way it ended up becoming a behemoth of a business in the small town of State College.
Matis came to town in 1981 and was doing financial planning on the second floor of a building along College Avenue that’s now an Urban Outfitters — he came to State College to work on an insurance agency geared toward college seniors.
One of his agents had a client named Jim Reeder, who owned a small business called Nittany Notes and who wanted to get down onto College Avenue to be closer to campus in the mid 1980s. Matis rented out a small space for Reeder to operate his business, and Matis sat directly across the hall from the small window and desk that made up the Notes’ base of operations.
After a semester, Reeder said he was breaking his verbal year-long agreement to work out of the office and was skipping town for a semester. Matis essentially said no — I will operate your business while you’re gone.
“I didn’t want to lose the rent,” he said.
At the end of the spring semester, Reeder called with news: He was getting married and wasn’t coming back.
Matis did some research, and took the plunge: He made sure Reeder had paid off his outstanding bills, and eventually the two settled on a price. Nittany Notes was his.
He visited and spoke with note-taking locations at the University of Florida (then called A-Plus Notes), Cornell University (called Take Note) and and the University of California, Berkeley (called Black Lightning). Matis changed the business model, added more classes, more note-takers and offered exam packets in addition to notes from individual classes.
In order to find some of the best and brightest students to take notes in classes, Matis started advertising in the student newspaper (Daily Collegian, holla!) and reaching out to groups. Word spread, and now hundreds of students flock to him every year in order to become note-takers. His employees deployed in classes across campus have an average GPA of nearly 3.7.
The business grew exponentially over the years, and other services in State College have tried to replicate the success of Nittany Notes, but no company has taken hold in the same way. Matis even for a time considered franchising out the business to other universities, but ultimately decided against it.
However, he has before sold off his database and his business plan through a turnkey operation where anyone who wants to open a note-taking business can operate with his consultation for the first three years.
And (entrepreneurial alert!) he said — if anyone’s interested in opening it — Temple University would be a great location for the next Notes.