The life-changing benefits of living with a random roommate in college

Everyone has a good freshman year roommate story.
Everyone has a good freshman year roommate story.
Image: REUTERS/Brian Snyder
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Meeting your freshman-year roommate has long been a suspense-filled rite of passage for new college students. But these days, there’s a lot less mystery about who you’ll be bunking with: Many colleges let students pre-select roommates using Facebook or other matching platforms.

Now the trend seems to be undergoing a reversal as colleges recognize the value of randomized roommate assignments. Their reasoning? It’s become all too easy to pre-select a roommate online who shares the same religion, political views, class background, or living habits as you. The hope is that random pairings will foster connections between students of different backgrounds, helping to expand their perspectives—which, colleges argue, is what the undergraduate experience is all about.

That’s the logic that prompted Duke University this spring to reinstate random roommate assignments for the incoming class of 2022. “We’ve watched over the last several years that an increasing number of students were preselecting roommates, taking advantage of social media or friends from home, and it began to become a much larger percentage of the class than we would’ve liked,” Larry Moneta, vice president for student affairs at Duke, told NPR’s Scott Simon.

Freshman year of college, he explained, is about students “engaging with difference and opening their eyes to opportunities, and meeting entirely different people than the ones they grew up with or went to high school with.” So at Duke, the roommate-selection process is back to being entirely governed by the university. Roommate pairings are made largely at random, while taking into account some lifestyle preferences or needs, like sleep patterns, disabilities, or medical conditions.

Roommates have a big impact on our college experience

That schools like Duke are so concerned with the issue is a testament to the outsized role that college roommates play in each others’ lives. As Olga Khazan writes in The Atlantic, “If the people around us influence our personalities and health, the people living five feet from our twin dorm bed do so all the more.”

That influence has both downsides and upsides, as an article by Dartmouth economics professor Bruce Sacerdote, published earlier this  year in The Conversation, points out. A 2014 study published in the Journal of Health Economics, for example, found that living with a binge drinker greatly influenced the likelihood that a given college student would binge drink themselves. Meanwhile, a 2013 study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology followed nearly 1,000 former college roommates over the course of 10 years, and found that women who had an eating disorder in their early 30s were more likely to have had college roommates who frequently dieted.

But college roommates can also be a remarkably positive influence on a student’s life. For instance, a 2015 working paper circulated by the National Bureau of Economic Research looked at randomly assigned squadron mates in the United States Air Force Academy. It found that being assigned to a high-achieving black roommate as a freshman increased white men’s acceptance of the other racial group, and made them more likely to voluntarily choose a black peer as a roommate the following year.

Rooming with a student of another race can be a key factor in how many interracial friendships white students develop in college. And one study showed that black students’ grades improved when they were paired with a white roommate—largely, the researchers theorized, because the white students may help their roommates acclimate to majority-white universities. Beyond the interracial dynamic, research suggests that your roommate’s good study habits may generally rub off on you, too.

If college roommates can worsen your bad habits but also open your horizons, it’s no wonder that colleges have a stake in making sure that the experience benefits people as much as possible. And there’s a special authenticity that can only come from randomness; from the beauty of two complete strangers sharing the rollercoaster ride that is freshman year of college, for better or for worse. As Jesse Singal writes in The Cut, while incoming freshmen might resent having to live with someone potentially so different from them, “when you examine this conundrum through the lens of ongoing economic, psychological, and sociological research into how roommates affect each other’s beliefs, interests, and prospects, it quickly becomes clears that rando roommates shouldn’t be avoided and excluded, but rather sought out and celebrated as an important part of the college experience.”

Should schools force roommates to live together?

Duke’s new policy raises questions about how much schools should do to encourage openness and tolerance within their student body–and whether a random roommate policy comes at a cost to minority students. Some critics argue that students of color or other marginalized students shouldn’t bear the burden of having to teach their more privileged peers about diverse perspectives. As Singal puts it, the concern is “that these rando roommates exist solely as plot devices to educate their whiter or richer roommates.”

But others say that liberal arts colleges are meant to make all students active participants in one another’s learning, both inside and outside the classroom. ”When you get accepted into one of these elite schools, that’s kind of part of the deal,” says Dartmouth’s Sacerdote, who has worked extensively on this question. “Part of the reason you get selected is that you bring something to the class. So, it’s difficult to then turn around and say ‘I want to get benefits from my peers but I don’t really want to give benefits to my peers.'”

Not all students—or parents—are happy about the idea of rooming with a stranger. Duke’s student newspaper, The Duke Chronicle, published a scathing editorial arguing that policies like the randomized roommate assignment system “are concerned more with the outward, feigned appearances of neoliberal, brochure-worthy multiculturalism, and are less concerned with the needs and requests of actual students living here.” Meanwhile, Ryan Briggs, the vice president of the Black Student Alliance at Duke, tweeted that he felt the policy would force minorities and students of colors into uncomfortable situations against their will:

Given the option between choosing to take a risk with a roommate or play it safe, students often choose the latter. Take Bowdoin College, for example. During the 2015-2016 school year, the school started a housing program for adventurous students known as “leap of faith housing.” The program was for sophomore, junior, and senior students who wanted to repeat the randomized roommate experience of their freshman year, and take a proverbial leap of faith to live with strangers and make new friends. Revealingly, during the first year of the program, the school had less than 50 interested students; the next year, it had fewer than 12. As of last year, the program page features a simple message: “Unfortunately, due to lack of interest, Bowdoin no longer offers this housing option.”