By Brooke Clayton
Each semester when grades are completed, one small italicized phrase appears on the bottom of a select few University of Iowa students’ transcripts: “On Dean’s List.”
Shortly after, those students receive an email from a third-party company called Merit Pages.
“Congratulations,” the email tells them. Along with a link to view the achievement on the UI Merit Page account, there is an instantaneous link to share on Facebook and Twitter.
When Merit Pages began, the focus was far from social media, though. The company is built around a new software called SASS, a lightning-fast newswire originally aimed at print media.
“Back in the day, when we started, people were physically mailing press releases to newspapers,” said Colin Mathews, the founder and president of Merit Pages. “We took something that used to take a whole summer and turned it into something that takes 10 minutes.”
Mathews has created a database of constituent groups that are interested in the achievements of college students, namely, hometown papers, local representatives, and high-school advising offices.
Those contacts pay no fee for Merit Pages’ press releases. The universities want the attention, and the universities pay for it — an annual $15,995 in the UI’s case. While the price is steep, Mathews said, it would cost more on postage alone to promote the achievement of every student sending press releases in the mail.
Rick Klatt, the UI director of strategic initiatives, provided the price tag on Merit Pages service, along with these other figures in an email to The Daily Iowan.
Last year, Merit Pages delivered 7,284 press releases to hometown papers, sent 2,275 updates to government representatives of UI students, and had more than 40,000 Hawkeyes share their achievements through the Facebook link in that congratulatory email.
“It’s an excellent tool for our students,” Klatt told the DI. “It helps them organize their accomplishments in and out of the classroom while at the same time allowing them to share the news with family and friends.”
Students can opt in to creating a free profile on Merit Pages, which will display their university-verified achievements. While making the Dean’s List or President’s List are among the most common, students are also recognized for receiving awards and scholarships or participating in prominent student organizations such as Dance Marathon — anything that the university uses SASS software to promote.
Those profiles, which act as a prequel to more career-oriented services such as LinkedIn, were mostly developed by Mathews and Merit Pages as a defense against threats to print media.
“Ten years ago, people were talking about the death of newspapers,” Mathews said. “So we started saying, let’s post these stories about students online as well and make them easily searchable by Google News and other search engines.”
Consolidating students’ achievements on profiles was the way to organize all the information growing in Merit Pages software, but to consider the service only a student tool would be to miss Mathews’ larger aim.
“There’s this broader narrative going around of, ‘What is the value of college, is a college degree worth it,’ ” Mathews said. “When people see people they know having these great experiences at school, that proves the value.
“We’re not trying to compete with LinkedIn, and we’re not trying to be a different kind of LinkedIn. We’re going to make sure that if an employer looks you up, they’re going to find good news about you.”
All matters Merit Pages go through Klatt and the UI Office of Strategic Communication and while Klatt said that UI’s active membership is about 50 percent greater than that of an average institution in the merit network, Angi McKie said that some students are still more aware of it than others.
“I think the value in Merit Pages to students could be that they are using it as a steppingstone and building blocks for their LinkedIn profiles and résumés,” she said. “Taking a look at their university-verified activities that show up on Merit Pages and thinking about how that translates to information to put on their résumés or LinkedIn profiles is a great way to start.”
Merit Pages is working on an initiative that would remove the third-party domain, Mathews said, and redirect students to a uiowa URL when they view and share their achievements online.