By Natasha Singer
Before Daniel Stompor arrived on campus last fall for his first year at Northwestern University, he went on Facebook, looking for a roommate.
Although Northwestern, in Evanston, Ill., has traditionally assigned roommates to incoming students, the school recently started offering another option: a matching app on Facebook, called RoomSync, that lets students search for and select their own roomies. Mr. Stompor, who is from the Chicago area, decided to try it.
In high school, he was a member of the cross-country team and acted in plays. But he wasn’t seeking his doppelgänger on RoomSync. In the app’s “about me” section, he says, he described himself as “pretty easygoing.”
The app also asked him to rate his preferences concerning neatness, music volume, noise tolerance and dorm-room guests. Based on his answers, it generated a list of suggested roommates for him, complete with their names and profile photographs, ranked in order of compatibility.
“It was one of the highlights of my freshman year, the fact that I had a choice in that,” Mr. Stompor told me recently.
With the idea of fostering roommate harmony, many colleges have long asked incoming students to fill out basic questionnaires about habits like smoking. Although some schools considered roommate requests on an individual basis, they tended to automatically assign first-year roommates based on a handful of details — even if those data were inaccurate.
“A lot of times, the parents filled it out,” says Joe Lindwall, vice president for marketing at StarRez, a company that provides housing management software to about 250 campuses in North America. “Suddenly everyone is a nonsmoker, goes to bed by 10 p.m. and is very studious.”
But digital natives raised on Netflix, Amazon and other recommendation engines expect a more participatory, personalized process. Many undergraduate institutions are obliging them by adopting roommate-on-demand systems.
“I’ve seen that the matches that RoomSync makes are good matches,” says Mark D’Arienzo, Northwestern’s senior associate director of residential services. “It allows students to interact and develop relationships two to three months before they come on campus.”
That was Mr. Stompor’s experience. After communicating with a few potential roommates, he received a message from a Chicagoan, Nathaniel Kier, who had found him through the app. They friended each other on Facebook, exchanged a flurry of messages, discovered they were both film buffs and officially requested each other as roommates. Northwestern approved.
Even though their dorm room turned out to be so cramped that they had to sleep in bunk beds, they got along well. “It helped me find where I fit in at Northwestern a lot faster,” Mr. Stompor says.
Ultimately, college officials hope that these roommate-recommendation engines can combat a costly problem: interpersonal conflicts so severe that they can prompt students to transfer to other schools before their sophomore year.
“The first six weeks are so critical to anchor a person into the fabric of an institution,” says Maurice Washington, the associate dean of residential life at Morehouse College in Atlanta; it lets first-year students use StarRez to select their roommates. “If you are in a residence hall, if we can get that right — the space in the nonacademic venue — that goes a long way to solving the retention issue.”
Compared to lost tuition and housing fees, which could amount to tens of thousands of dollars for just one student, the cost of roommate-matching services may seem insignificant. StarRez charges institutions $30,000 or more — plus annual support fees — for comprehensive housing management software, including online roommate and dorm-room selection, along with room maintenance tracking. RoomSync charges $1,000 to $15,000 a year, depending on the size of the school.
Yet roommate self-selection carries a risk: People often reflexively seek out others who resemble themselves, a tendency called “homophily.” That is an issue for institutions that still consider learning to live with — and perhaps even like — peers of different backgrounds, faiths and interests to be an important part of an undergraduate education. After all, a musician as a roommate might extend a rugby player’s social and cultural life, or vice versa.
To enable some serendipity, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill uses a masking option on StarRez. Incoming students register under screen names, not their real names, and potential matches are displayed without profile photos.
“The risk of the technology — and of not meeting face to face — is that it can also result in people not wanting to room together based on differences like race or sexual orientation,” says Rick Bradley, the university’s associate director of housing and residential education. “That’s certainly not what we believe in.”
Colleges may also tailor the questionnaires. They often ask about study or sleep preferences and, occasionally, about more personal matters, like how much a student snores or plays video games, Mr. Lindwall of StarRez says. If students aren’t enthused about the initial suggested matches, they can run their own searches based on the questionnaires for, say, peers who also wake up after 9 a.m.
Letting students choose seems to be paying off — at least for college officials who field requests for room changes.
Before the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, offered RoomSync, families would receive their children’s first-year roommate assignments and immediately look up the students on Google and Facebook. Then parents would deluge Matt Austin, the university’s associate director of residence life, with concerns about the religion, sexual orientation or even party photos of the roommates-to-be.
“I wanted to give freshmen more control over the process, first because we’d have fewer roommate changes,” Mr. Austin told me, “but also because, if students were more invested in that roommate, they would try harder to work things out before they requested a roommate change.”
In fact, he says, letting students participate in selecting their roommates may play a more significant role in residential harmony than the matching algorithm itself. Among incoming Lowell students who found a roommate on RoomSync last year, about 1 percent later asked to change rooms. Among those who tried the app but did not choose a roommate on it, the figure was 4 percent. Among those who did not try the app at all, it was about 8 percent.
As for the sympatico Northwestern roommates, they haven’t seen each other much this summer, even though they are both working on campus. But come September, they have chosen to be roommates again — albeit in a bigger dorm room.