Euphoric over the outcome of their college search, Sophie Hurewitz and Nikki Mahendru pivoted soon after to what has become the next ritual for many students: the roommate search.
They couldn’t know at the time that their quest would be snared in a debate over college housing policies and campus diversity.
Hurewitz, of the District, and Mahendru, of Short Hills, N.J., had never met until they were admitted early to Duke University. They connected via a Duke 2022 Facebook group, a mutual friend, and messaging applications GroupMe and Snapchat. Both had played soccer in high school. Both were thinking about sororities and fields such as neuroscience and global health. They hit it off and resolved to room together.
“We got really close really quickly,” Mahendru recalled.
But Duke upended their plans in late February with an edict that incoming students could no longer make the roommate choice themselves. The two 18-year-olds were shocked. “No one really knew it was coming,” Hurewitz said.
Duke’s shift underscored growing scrutiny of a trend that has taken root over the past decade as social media and digital matchmaking tools enable more students than ever to pick their first roommate. At the University of Chicago, about 15 to 20 percent of incoming freshmen pair up on their own. At the University of Virginia, the share is well over half.
Those who favor giving students a choice contend that young adults happy with their initial living situation away from home are more likely to thrive in class and launch on the path to a degree.
Others say it’s far better to assign the first roommate because students otherwise tend to segregate by race, geography or social class, undermining efforts to get them to learn new perspectives.
“In the last few years, we’ve seen increasing numbers of students who have preselected roommates, often with very similar backgrounds to their own,” Larry Moneta, Duke’s vice president for student affairs, and Steve Nowicki, dean and vice provost for undergraduate education, wrote to the Class of 2022, explaining the change. “While this may make the transition to college seem somewhat easier, we’ve also seen that this can work against your having the best educational and social experience in the long term.”
The officials promised to take into account medical needs and lifestyles — when you go to sleep, where you like to study and so on — but emphasized that students would no longer be able to select a roommate. “Our experience over many years assures us (and thus, you) that you’ll be fine . . . better, in fact!” they wrote.
Skeptics on campus said Duke had overlooked student input.
“Simply forcing students from different regions of the world to eat, sleep and work together is not a fix-all for racial and class disharmony on campus,” the student newspaper the Chronicle wrote in an editorial.
Nowicki said Duke’s shift was motivated in part by the discovery that 46 percent of students who entered in fall 2017 had picked their own roommate. “A startling number,” he said. The majority were economically privileged. “It was basically the well-off students finding each other,” he said.
So Duke decided to mix it up. It’s not the first to make the switch.
A few years ago, New York University barred incoming students from pairing up on their own, opting instead to assign roommates with an eye to geographic diversity. The goal, said Tom Ellett, senior associate vice president for student affairs at NYU, was to ensure nobody living in the same room shares the same Zip code. Ellett said the policy takes advantage of the global nature of a school where about one-fifth of incoming students are from outside the United States.
“We’ve normalized having an international roommate,” Ellett said. “We value difference.”
Plenty of schools are well known for giving freshmen little to no say in who will be their roommate. Princeton University officials meet in person to sort through who lives with whom in residential colleges.
“Every other year after their first year, they get to choose,” said Mellisa Thompson, associate dean of undergraduate students at Princeton University. “This is the only opportunity we have to really create an experience where a group of random folks have one thing in common — they’re all first-year students.”
But in recent years, a growing number of students heading to other schools have taken charge of the process. They join Facebook groups to check out classmates. They hunt for prospective roommates at campus events for admitted students. Often, they use matchmaking apps available through colleges.
At the University of Maryland, a spokeswoman said about 30 percent of incoming students use a service called RoomSync. Users upload a profile photo and answer a few questions: What is your major? What time do you prefer to go to bed? How neat of a roommate do you want? How often do you want your roommate to have visitors? And the open-ended: Describe yourself.
Using cellphones, users can then sift through the profiles to find potential matches and introduce themselves.
RoomSync, based in Gainesville, Fla., launched in 2007. The University of Florida was its first major client. It now works with more than 50 universities, including U-Md., Michigan State and Virginia Commonwealth, co-founder and President Robert Castellucci said. He said students these days want control over their housing from day one.
“Part of college is becoming a grown-up — evolving into and building into someone,” Castellucci said. That includes making decisions, he said. “One of them that’s pretty important is figuring out who your roommate is.”
As a general rule, schools say they honor roommate requests only if both students ask for it.
At Howard University, incoming students are generally assigned roommates but allowed to request swaps soon after they arrive. At American, George Washington and Georgetown universities, new students are permitted to pair up in advance.
U-Va. said about 65 percent of incoming freshmen specify a preferred roommate on their housing applications, up from about 50 percent a decade ago. Most requests are honored, a spokesman said.
University of Pennsylvania officials said they try as much as possible to accommodate mutual roommate requests. One-third of their incoming class will match up on their own. But the university also warns students to think twice about rooming with a best friend from high school. “We want students to experience something new,” said Ryan Keytack, director of four-year houses and residential programs.
That’s what Alexandra Fine is seeking at Duke.
The 18-year-old from Montgomery County, Md., said she was thrown off stride when she visited campus as an admitted student for a February event called “Blue Devil Days” and noticed that many peers seemed already paired up. Over and over, she heard people ask: “Do you have a roommate yet?”
Many students she talked with, Fine said, “looked a lot like me.” She said she was eager to get out of her comfort zone and was relieved when Duke announced the policy change.
“You want to meet new people,” she said. “I’ve been in Bethesda my whole life.” She’s glad to no longer face pressure to hunt for a roommate herself.
Her classmates Hurewitz and Mahendru said they are at peace with the policy, too.
“We’re still going to be super-close,” Mahendru said.
“Maybe it’ll end up better in the long run if my best friend isn’t my roommate,” Hurewitz said.