Nittany Notes: Once A Gift, Now Penn State’s Premier Study Aid

It started as a gift in 1987.

A young man sharing an office building with Tom Matis was preparing to leave State College in pursuit of married life working for his soon to be stepfather. He owned a small business named Nittany Notes, and hoped to sell the sinking company before he jumped ship and the debts became too immense to pay. Matis, at the time an assiduous financial planner that worked across the hall, bought the company for a low price. Over 25 years later, Nittany Notes is still alive, and it’s now the town’s most prodigious note providing service, employing 200 students and offering notes and practice exams for some 325 courses.

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Tom Matis arrived in State College by way of New York. A financial planner, Matis worked for a small company called Fidelity Union, attempting to lure in students to the small practice before they accrued serious money.

“We had a college program where you could go one campus and start this financial planning program with senior, anyone who was within 12 months of graduating could sign up,” he said. ‘The idea was you could get some good clients at an early age and then you could work with them as they gathered more income.”

Though a Pennsylvania native, Matis’ manager didn’t have jurisdiction within the state’s borders, so he had been working in upstate New York, with fewer students and smaller profits. But when Alliance, a major financial firm, bought the smaller company, Matis, a rising worker in his own right, was quickly offered a job in the expanding central Pennsylvania college town.

“My manager says I’ve got Pennsylvania now, the guy in State College is doing a terrible job, he said I’m sending you to State College if you want it,” he said. “I went from having 500 or 600 seniors — it was like triple up here. Why wouldn’t I take it?”

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Profits and clients soon followed. So did a new neighbor.

Matis was working in the second floor of the location that now houses Urban Outfitters on College Avenue. Matis’ office wasn’t full, and his office manager soon leased out some empty space to supplement rent payments. In a came a young entrepreneur that owned a note taking business that nobody, even seemingly at times himself, was really interested in.

“He brought a white counter in, two filing cabinets, and a fax machine,” he said. “Started renting it in the fall semester, came to me later in the semester and said I’m going to sell the business, nobody was interested, he just was not doing well. Basically I looked at him and saw here’s an entrepreneur that can’t run a business.”

But despite the young fellow’s shortcomings, Matis saw potential in the business, and took up the opportunity to try to sell it for him and make some side money.

“I thought, ‘Jeez this is impressive.’ Long story short, I couldn’t sell it for him.”

Instead, Matis himself bought the business. On the day of the closing, right before Matis had officially signed the papers transferring the company to himself, a mailman dropped off a $2,000 bill that Nittany Notes owed. It allowed Matis to sign for an even cheaper price, and, a religious man, reaffirmed his belief that “the Lord literally dropped this business in my office and left it.”

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The company under Matis’ ownership quickly boomed. A self-described organizer and learner, he quickly franchised the company to Penn State graduates at 15 other universities to three-year deals.

“We literally had students out there buying notes while we were having construction there trying to expand,” he said. Among the necessary improvements were a larger office space (now located at 139 S Pugh St) and four more copy machines just to keep up with demand.

Matis didn’t know much about the note providing business, but quickly learned from those with more experience. Among those was the father of Matis’ former financial colleague: A doctor and professor at a medical school that suggested even his top tier students thrived from buying supplementary notes.

“What they had was transcribed notes, very boring. I put it into an outline form, added in a few other suggestions from notetakers,” he said. “Our system is a study system, and that’s the way I’ve designed the whole system. Back in 1999, I put in practice exams up on campus. Only the physics department back then had practice exams. Penn State students should thank me if they have practice exams now that’s because I added practice exams.”

Today, Matis has also added a fast track study system to his notes. It allows any student, when taking a practice test, to quickly find where in the notes an error on the practice exam is explained. His note takers have an average GPA of around 3.6, and he stressed his product isn’t just for students looking to skip class, but for anyone looking to better understand the material.

“It is a study system; anybody can use it at any level,” he explained. “Our mantra is beyond your way to an A, and I’ve had premed students come in here who have had a 4.0, they come in here and do notes and buy notes, and they say it does help to have the notes. It is a very effective practice system.”

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Some teachers quickly pushed back. There’s no denying that one could see Matis’ service as a way to deter attending class. It’s a complaint he’s heard since opening his door, and it’s seemed to have caused some anti-academic sentiments.

“If you come up and buy notes, it says it’s not a substitute for going to class. You can’t substitute anything from going to class,” he began. “My opinion is some of the professors have really ruined the classroom experience by how they teach. I had a teacher who once taught from the textbook, and he once tested from the textbook.

“They ruin it.”

He explained that many of the professors in which the Nittany Notes for that class are most popular are the ones that either teach straight from the textbook, or simply drone on and on, and thus already have low attendance. Also, he said, many professors work side by side with Nittany Notes to either provide economically disadvantage students extra study materials, or to make sure their lecture material corresponds with his final product.

“I will work with the professors in any way they want to cooperate,” he said. “They call me up and say alright quit doing notes. I say that’s not cooperating that’s you being a Gestapo and you telling me what to do.”

“I’m a nice guy, I try to work with the professors any way they can, but they try to intimidate these young kids, give them all these threats,” he continued. “I remember one guy that said its illegal to sell all your notes…Well, it isn’t.”

Matis then pulled out a copy of a Faculty Senate report. He’s been called to interview in front of different student and faculty groups several times. After each, he’s come out victorious.

“They think God dropped all of their information into their brains and no one else in the world has it but them,” he said. I said ‘Well listen, you went to college, and you read the books, that’s exactly what the copyright laws are saying. This information you have is not exclusive to you.’ It’s a really a tough thing to prove in court.”

Matis is proud of this independence. Hanging in his office is a newspaper article about a similar note company in Florida that was sued by the university and lost. The small business countersued, defeating the institution to the tune of a $100,000 settlement.

Matis’ head butting with Penn State appears to be in the past. He’s comfortable with where his business sits, and thinks it’s just about hitting the intended 30 percent market share. He’s also comfortable with his product, and the service it provides to the Penn State community.

“When I talk to note takers, they say I’m reviewing the material every day as a note taker,’” he said. “It’s a different level when you have understanding.”

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Ben Berkman

State College, PA

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