From the messages they’d exchanged before move-in day, Nichole K., now 24, never suspected that her relationship with her newly-assigned college roommate would be anything other than cordial. The two incoming members of the University of Delaware’s class of 2020 didn’t seem to have much in common, Nichole said, but their communication never veered from friendly. Decisions about who would supply the mini-fridge and which carpet they should buy transpired with relative ease.
The mood started to shift by their first week in the dorm. That was when Nichole’s roommate stopped wearing clothes in an effort to find relief from the string of 90-degree days heating up Newark, Delaware. For Nichole, the problem wasn’t the nudity per se, or even that her roommate didn’t ask for permission before stripping down. The problem was that the nudity put a strain on Nichole’s ability to socialize during what is perhaps already the most socially taxing week of college.
“It’s my first week of college, I’m meeting new people, and I can’t bring my new friends from class back to my room to hangout because my naked roommate’s there,” Nichole said. She worried that her rooming situation was keeping her from cultivating friendships in more ways than one. Unlike the rest of her hallmates, she couldn’t keep her door open, inviting passersby to drop in and say hello.
Nichole didn’t want to get off on the wrong foot. She stayed tight lipped about the nudity, and she bit her tongue when her roommate started smoking in the room, despite admitting to Nichole that she’d requested to live with a non-smoker. With time, Nichole learned to ask her roommate to clean up after herself—the piles of tissues and needles from stick-and-poke tattoos she left on the floor, and wads of chewed gum she’d stick to the desk next to Nichole’s bed. At one point, Nichole was embarrassed but concerned enough to turn to a Resident Assistant for help dealing with an illicit tub of lighter fluid her roommate was storing in the room to refill her cigarette lighters. The issue resolved itself when her roommate left school after the first semester.
While Nichole may have avoided her room during those first months, she came away with a sense of gratitude for the experience, which pushed her to meet as many new people as possible that semester. She graduated from the University of Delaware with strong relationships and fond memories of college life, putting her “nightmare” first-year roommate experience in an interesting context.
As colleges and universities become increasingly concerned about student mental health and wellbeing, first-year roommate matching strategies are a major consideration and not without complexity. Should schools consider the comfort and compatibility of roommates part of student wellbeing and therefore take a hands-on approach to preventing conflict—lest it lead to more serious problems? Or should there be limits to their involvement in the interest of letting students develop personally and independently? When it comes to first-year residential life, can any one approach offer students the social-emotional growth they may need without risking potentially more harmful outcomes they don’t?
To Choose or not to Choose?
When the University of Delaware gave Nichole a choice—to pick her roommate or let the school pick one for her—the first thing she did was log onto Facebook.
There, on a page dedicated to her graduating class, peers posted pictures of themselves, along with descriptions of who they were and what they were looking for in a roommate. In a process she equated to online dating, Nichole browsed through her classmates and sent messages to the ones she thought might make good roommates.
Eventually, she stopped looking for a roommate because of what she detected was “the sense of competitiveness” that brewed within the Facebook group. It became obvious which students were sought-after roommates based on the number of likes and comments their posts received. She began to wonder whether she was reaching out to people she wanted to live with or just those garnering the most praise online.
Colleges share her concern. Historically, they’ve matched first-year roommates in one of two ways: by assigning every student a roommate or giving students the choice between an assignment and picking their own. In recent years, a debate over whether schools should offer students this option to select their roommate has escalated. High-profile schools like Duke University and Colgate University even changed their policies to disallow it.
Students aren’t just contending with the social anxiety that can come, as Nichole described, from using social media to find a roommate. They may also be responding to this discomfort by seeking out potential roommates who seem the most like them.
At Haverford College in Haverford, Pennsylvania, students are not allowed to choose their own roommate. Associate Dean Scott Wojciechowski said when students are more interested in finding a roommate with their music tastes or sports fanaticism than with their sleep routine and approach to personal hygiene, trouble may ensue. “Those folks can have those similar interests but then live in completely conflicting ways,” he said.
Carly Bass, 18, who is in her first semester at Indiana University Bloomington, turned to her class Facebook group as Nichole did to find a roommate. Although she said going online seemed like the best option at the time, she was also suspicious of the quality of connections she made because “everyone’s just agreeing with what you say.”
As colleges and universities become increasingly concerned about student mental health and wellbeing, first-year roommate matching strategies are a major consideration and not without complexity.
The roommate she ended up choosing didn’t end up being the one she imagined. “I think that my roommate especially, not lied, but didn’t tell the full truth about… the type of person she is,” Carly said. “At first, I thought that we were going to be the same person, be able to be best friends, and all that stuff, but it turns out she’s very, very different.”
High expectations can spell disaster, said Johnna Matulja, the Director of Business Operations for Housing and Residence Life at Ohio University (OHIO). “Sometimes the ones that they chose tend to be the ones that they have to escape,” Matulja said. “Sometimes having a stranger as a roommate tends to be a huge blessing that you might not be aware of because their communication needs are much higher because they’re strangers. So you’re walking into a lack of assumptions, and assuming can be a really dangerous thing.”
While Matulja said she tends to encourage students to live with someone assigned to them, they ultimately have the choice. OHIO approaches rooming assignments with the understanding that residential life, like most elements of the college experience, doesn’t merit a one-size-fits-all approach.
While some students may prefer meeting their roommate on move-in day, others will feel more comfortable knowing who they’re dealing with beforehand. And feeling comfortable in the dorm may have an impact on students, both personally and academically. “[From] our student service lens, we are always looking at recruitment and retention,” Matulja said. “A huge piece of a student’s success in regards to their academics and their reason for being here is their ability to feel safe in their space.”
A national study out of the Indiana University Bloomington reinforces the idea that, for some students, there is a link between the option to choose their roommate and their sense of belonging on campus. Researchers found that students of color who were assigned their roommates perceived a much less “welcoming campus environment” than those who chose them.
“What we found was that being able to choose your own roommate allowed you to have that place… where you go and be yourself and can relax,” said Robert Gonyea, associate director of the Center for Postsecondary Research at Indiana University. Especially for marginalized students more likely to face forms of discrimination on campus, the ability to choose a roommate may help reduce the likelihood of having negative encounters in their private spaces.
The same research also revealed that students who chose their roommate experienced no fewer “diverse interactions” than those who received a roommate assignment. In other words, the results challenge the notion that random assignments lead to more heterogeneous campus environments.
Matching roommates has traditionally required that students complete a questionnaire about their living habits and preferences. Another option, My College Roomie, is a software that OHIO contracts to facilitate the roommate search process as an alternative to Facebook. First-years fill out a questionnaire designed by the school in partnership with My College Roomie, whose algorithm generates suggested roommate matches based on the answers. That way, students get support thinking about what qualities they want in a roommate and identifying compatible options, but they also maintain a sense of control over the experience.
Johnna Matulja from OHIO noted that students might not intend to “lie” on their forms but end up changing significantly between the time they answer the questions as a senior in high school and when they start college in the fall. For the same reason, she encourages parents not to get overly involved in helping their ever-evolving children fill out the surveys, and OHIO avoids basing roommate matches on the results.
Luck of the Draw
The varied outcomes of roommate matching, even those involving algorithms and curated selection, suggest the process may be largely ruled by chance.
Case in point: After Nichole’s first roommate dropped out, the University of Delaware assigned her a new one. Nichole went through the same roommate pairing process twice and faced completely different results each time. If her first roommate was a nightmare, the second was a dream come true—quiet, clean, and on the same sleep schedule. So did the university make a more concerted effort to find Nichole a compatible match after the first failed attempt? Or did she just get luckier the second time around?
As they consider the possibility that there isn’t a fool-proof way to pair roommates, more colleges are moving away from a model that assumes they can ensure positive outcomes. They’re realizing how difficult it is to make promises on the front end and wondering if it doesn’t make more sense to redirect their energy toward resolving issues that may come down the road.
Some schools are trending towards random assignment, meaning they’re assigning roommates largely without calculated rhyme or reason. At OHIO, they refer to their roommate matching process as “room selection.” If students opt not to select their own roommate—which is the case for about half of all first-years—then they simply choose the physical room they want to live in, and whoever picks the same one becomes their roommate.
Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) brought its roommate pairing operations to an end after realizing the results were likely not worth the trouble. “They did put a lot of time and people power into matching roommates based on preferences and schedules and then realized very quickly that that was not actually resulting in a more beneficial roommate or more compatible roommate relationship,” said Sydney Lease, the Associate Director for Residence Life at IUPUI.
Part of the reason IUPUI turned away from surveys and toward random assignments is because of the high expectations students developed given a process that professed to carefully assess their needs and preferences. Sydney Lease said that, with the understanding that their roommate would be their perfect match, students were more likely to find faults with the university if reality went awry. “People were coming saying, ‘You paired me with this person and said that based on this matching system, it would be compatible, and it turns out they’re not.’”
For both OHIO and IUPUI, the ideal approach has become one that focuses more on conflict resolution than prevention. The housing office at IUPUI is currently involved in a multi-year project investigating what contributes to positive roommate relationships. Based on student responses so far, the university has determined and incorporated “positive impact behaviors” into both the residential handbook and a roommate contract. Throughout the year, students also complete surveys that assess their rooming situations and allow staff to reach out and help if needed.
“It’s kind of a different approach to matching people on the front end. Like, once you’re randomly assigned, how can we coach you to have a positive roommate relationship?” Lease said.
At OHIO, students can turn to residential advisors for one-on-one chats to work through residential issues and find solutions independently. “We just try to offer the tools to help them navigate throughout their difficult moments because they’re going to be created no matter what,” said Matulja. “Those roommate conflicts are going to happen… It does matter how you are able to navigate it and find your resources and either have the difficult conversation or at least find a way to manage your difficult situation if you can’t have the difficult conversations.”
With experts stressing the need for “grit” and resilience—assets Gen Z students are accused of lacking—navigating first-year roommate relationships may be another pathway to personal development on campus. If conflict resolution and working collaboratively with others are behaviors one should have in life, perhaps roommate issues are just part the college experience and up to the roommates to resolve, regardless of how they were paired. This thinking does, however, involve giving Gen Z students more control over, and perhaps credit for, independently managing the many challenges associated with college life.
“I think, quite frankly, it’s just like anything,” Matulja said. “Most of it rests on the students’ ability and grit, their tenacity, their ability to rebound from a tough situation. Because as much as a roommate situation can be difficult in their first-year experience, so can a tough teacher or a tough class.”