Forget Friending -- Roommate Me

For the first time, incoming students at San Francisco State U. can select who they want to live with by searching online profiles.
August 24, 2007

Here are some of your classmates. Here is their contact information. Happy networking! And check back with us in three weeks.

Those were the directions this summer from San Francisco State University to the majority of freshmen who applied to live in its dorms. For the first time, housing officials gave incoming students a chance to pick their desired roommate from an already narrowed list by scanning their profiles on social networking sites.

In previous years, students would receive their housing assignments a month in advance, giving them plenty of time to get a read on their roommate through Facebook and MySpace pages. Philippe Cumia, associate director of residential administrative services at San Francisco State, said the university could count on calls from students who didn't like what they were seeing.

"They'd tell us, 'This isn't a person I'd like to live with,'" Cumia said. "Parents would go on and look for the students. We heard complaints about housing assignments, which put us in the situation of having to contact the other resident. We found this particularly disheartening, because we made an effort to give students time to be able to reach out to their roommate."

Given how easy it is these days for students to find information about each other online, residential life offices find this scenario becoming all too familiar. So instead of waiting for the complaints, San Francisco State has decided to put the onus on students.

A number of other colleges have found ways to encourage roommate hunting over the summer. For several years, the University of Texas at Austin has used a Web-based system that allows students to answer questions (all picked by student government) about both themselves --- personality, hobbies, living habits -- and the traits they are seeking in a roommate. The computer spits out what it determines are the best matches, and students can then contact anyone on that list.

This year the university has seen more roommate requests than ever before, according to Laurie Mackey, associate director for administrative services in the division of Housing and Food Service. Texas doesn't track how the students are finding each other, but she estimates that at least one-quarter of all incoming students use its questionnaire system.

Alan Hargrave, associate vice president for student affairs and director of housing and residence life at Ball State University, which uses a similar matching system, said almost all of its students who turn in their requests before July 1 get their desired roommate.

San Francisco State also uses a questionnaire to help match some students, but Cumia said the university wanted to add another option. About 1,100 out of 1,500 freshmen who indicated they wanted to live in residence halls agreed to take part in the self-matching program.

Housing officers divided students into living groups, based upon major, age and other factors. So students who saw their list of 25, 50 or 75 (depending on the group) potential roommates already knew that those included would likely live on the same floor or at least in the same residence hall. It was their job -- given names, e-mail addresses and personal Web pages -- to pair off in a matter of three weeks.

When two students agreed on a match, they notified the housing office, which Cumia said most likely accommodated the request. He said results of the program won't be known until later this year. (Students are moving in this week.)

"At this point our goal is to facilitate roommate relationships before and after they arrive," Cumia said.

As with any type of self-matching system, San Francisco State's raises a question about housing practices. Critics say these arrangements promote segregation -- that when given the opportunity, most students will choose to live with students who look like them.

Norb Dunkel, director of housing and residence education at the University of Florida and president-elect of the Association of College and University Housing Officers International, said that is a concern with many housing offices. "As an institution, we have a diverse student body," he said. "When you start self-segregating, you are missing out on opportunities to know people with different backgrounds."

Mackey, the Texas associate director, said it's not always desirable for students to live with their best friends, but at the same time, students are often put at ease if they know their roommate.

Dunkel said he's no longer surprised by what measures students and their parents take to learn information about a potential roommate. He's heard of some using Google Earth, for instance, to track down other students' home towns as an indicator of socioeconomic status. And Dunkel said he suspects colleges that are giving students more of a say in the roommate choice have different motivations.

"There's a growing frustration with the angry phone call," he said. "Some say, 'If there's a way to stop this, let's do it.' Some are saying, students need this option and it's where our profession is heading. Whichever it is, I hope there are genuine discussions [about these programs]."


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