For generations, one of the first challenges of going off to college was meeting the stranger the school chose to be your roommate. Today, a growing number of students are bypassing that tradition and making the choice themselves through online social networking.
Over the next several weeks, many freshmen will arrive at dormitories to move in with roommates they already know, even if they have never met or talked on the phone.
“Realistically, even the most personal roommate-matching service can’t match Facebook,” said Adam Gang, 18, of Colorado, who will be a freshman at American University. “You’re an accepted friend request away from knowing someone.”
Some college officials say that choosing roommates for students helps ensure they are exposed to different points of view. They worry that incoming freshmen would tend to pick people of the same race, social background or hometown.
But AU, recognizing that students want a voice in the matter, has come up with a way to help them.
Earlier this year, Gang filled out a short questionnaire: Do you maintain normal sleeping hours? (Yes.) How social are you? (Somewhat.) Sleep style? (Heavy.)
Rather than pairing Gang with a roommate, the AU housing office sent him a short list of potential matches based on his replies. He went to Facebook and hit it off with James Quigley, 18, of New York. Both students plan to study international relations and love playing sports. They requested to live together and will meet for the first time on move-in day this month.
“Me and Adam are pretty similar,” Quigley said. “I feel like you need to know more about a person if you’re going to live with them.”
As more freshmen go online in a quest to shape their living situation, college officials are split on whether that is a good idea.
A few schools are embracing the movement. Many others have no formal policies on the use of social networking to choose roommates but will offer guidance (encouraging or discouraging) to students who call to inquire. The University of Maryland has set up its own internal social network for admitted students to get to know each other and look for roommates.
At the University of Virginia, the number of requests for first-year roommates has more than doubled in five years. Last year, according to U-Va. acting housing director Patricia Romer, students were told that it may not be possible to honor all requests.
Giving freshmen more say in their living arrangements can result in fewer roommate conflicts, some college housing officials say. They add that students are more likely to be honest in a one-on-one chat with a fellow teenager than on a form their parents might see. Living with a stranger is always a risk, but allowing students to pick that stranger builds an investment in wanting to make things work.
But other officials worry students are focusing on the wrong qualities in these searches — music bands instead of cleaning habits, funny prom stories instead of rules for overnight guests.
The self-matching process for the Class of 2015 started as early as January, when students admitted via early admission began to form Facebook groups. Many of these pages resembled online dating sites, as students queried each other about personality quirks, favorite sitcoms and drinking habits.
“It came down to even, ‘What colors do you like in your room?’ ” said Julie Bogen, 19, from Connecticut, a sophomore at Wheaton College in Massachusetts who found her first-year roommate (now a close friend) on Facebook.
When Melanie Blair searched for her first roommate at the University of Southern California a few years ago, a few girls she contacted wanted to know her jean size.
“Some girls want a roommate who is the same size and has the same shoe size. That way they can share clothes,” said Blair, 21, from Chicago, who will be a senior this fall. Once, she said, a prospective roommate turned her down because of a size conflict.
Last year, AU launched the matching system that Gang and Quigley used. First, students complete a survey on basic living preferences. Then they receive a list of possible matches and are encouraged to bond via an internal networking site or e-mail — although most students connect on Facebook, said Chris Moody, AU’s executive director of housing and dining programs.
“We don’t encourage it,” he said, “but they do it.”
Once roommates request one another, they can pick a dorm room on an online floor plan, just like booking an airplane seat. In the program’s first year, Moody said, residence hall assistants dealt with fewer roommate conflicts and requests for room changes.
Social networking has played a major role in collegiate housing for years. On many campuses, it started with phone calls from parents who found profiles of their children’s roommates online and were troubled by what they saw.
“They would call and say, ‘We’ve seen X on their MySpace page. We just don’t think they are going to be a good match,’ ” said Paul Lynch, director of campus and residential services at Marymount University in Virginia. (He never honored such requests.)
As high school students gained access to Facebook, they began to network with future classmates.
Last year on a George Washington University Class of 2014 page, some incoming freshmen posted introductory videos of themselves. This summer at the College of William and Mary, freshmen who will live in Dupont Hall have an active Facebook page where they announced room assignments, found neighbors (“Room 108! who is in 110!? and 106?”) and posted questions for RAs (“Does anyone know exactly what the rooms come with, furniture-wise?”).
At many schools, move-in day is beginning to feel more like a class reunion. Several housing officials said they weren’t surprised when students made friends online and decided, “Hey, we should room together.”
Many students say they worry that the wrong roommate could ruin everything.
“I will be honest: There are some psychos. And I don’t want to live with them,” said Amelia Simpson, 19, a Boston University sophomore from Springfield, Va. “You don’t want to be with someone who is slacking all of the time or complaining all of the time.”
Simpson found a roommate on Facebook last summer. The two requested each other and split the cost of a mini-fridge and printer. On “selection day,” they learned they had been assigned to a quad room with two more roommates, total strangers, chosen by who-knows-who in the housing office.
“We weren’t even aware there were rooms with four people,” Simpson said. “It ended up being the right mix . . . We were the only room without drama.”