The End of the College Roommate?

More and more schools are letting students live in single dorm rooms. 
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When Spencer Kiessling was a freshman at the University of South Carolina, he had a terrible roommate experience. “I really didn’t want to have to share a room again,” he says. So when he transferred to the University of Southern Indiana, a public university outside of Evansville, he requested a room all to himself.

And his new school was more than happy to oblige.

“The biggest advantage of your own room is, obviously, the privacy,” says Kiessling, now a junior majoring in environmental science. “Also, it makes it a lot easier for me to focus when I need to get work done.”

For students like Kiessling, who want to increase privacy, enjoy more personal space, and, most importantly, avoid bad roommate experiences, there’s an answer. In the parlance of university residence life, it’s called a “super single”: a room big enough for two people, but reserved for one. A natural outgrowth of the college amenities arms race—the competition to build facilities with ever-more luxurious spaces—super singles cater to a growing number of students willing to pay for a private room.

Colleges that offer super singles include public universities such as Sacramento State University and the University of Tennessee as well as private schools such as Hofstra University in Long Island and Emory University in Atlanta. The University of Northern Iowa has converted Shull Hall, a traditional residence hall designed for double occupancy, into a super singles dorm. “Occupying the room with a roommate is the exception in this hall,” says Glenn Gray, executive director of the school’s Department of Residence. The super single option is “a point of distinction in our invitations to transfer students—a growing portion of our new students,” he says.

At the moment, single rooms are still the exception. But if the trend takes off, and future generations of American college students come to expect their own room, the four-year residential college experience might look quite different. What are the long-term consequences of getting rid of the college roommate? As annoying as roommates can be, don't they offer valuable lessons?

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that private rooms have changed and still are changing social aspects of college,” says Kiessling. “With a private room, it’s very easy to find yourself cut off from a social life. If you just go back to your room as soon as class is over, you’re never going to meet anyone new or have any experiences beyond those in the classroom.”

Many student development experts find the super singles trend worrisome. “Learning to interact effectively with others is a central element of success in adult life in both work and personal contexts,” says Marcia Baxter Magolda, a professor at Miami University in Ohio who conducted a 27-year longitudinal study on young adult development. Establishing an “inner voice,” she says, is necessary to function effectively in today’s complex world, where one must think critically, evaluate multiple perspectives, make ethical decisions, and balance one’s own needs with those of others. But such growth isn’t automatic; it requires interaction. “Having a roommate in a residence hall system, where the staff members assist students in navigating the complexity of relationships, would contribute to such growth.”

Many people who became lifelong friends with their roommate also find the private-room trend troubling. “I don’t think it’s a good idea,” says Harry Frankenfeld, a 2001 graduate of Belmont University in Nashville who is now an audio engineer and videographer in Seattle. “Living in the dorms helped me, as an only child, connect and learn how to live with other people. I think I’m more balanced because of my friendship with my roommate. I had to learn to work through conflict, and learn how to celebrate someone else’s ‘wins.’”

Frankenfeld and his roommate stayed friends after college, kept in touch despite living thousands of miles away, and, like many college roommates, participated in each other’s weddings. They still talk about twice a month. He thinks students who never have a roommate will miss out, not only on the chance to build a lasting friendship, but also on a unique opportunity for personal growth. “Basically, I had to learn to be less self-centered and selfish. It’s helped in my marriage, in my work relationships, and in my relationships in general. Roommates are good for us.”

Indeed, academic studies show roommates can have positive effects on each other. For example, sociologist David R. Harris found in a 2002 American Sociological Review study that white students who were paired up with non-white roommates ended up more open-minded about race.

Learning about different cultures and experiencing the breakdown of one’s stereotypes are important lessons that can be learned through having a roommate, says Dalton Conley, dean of social sciences at New York University. But there are also more mundane aspects of learning to live with someone: how to make do when the other person in the room snores, or likes the window open at night, or is messier than you would like. “Roommates simply teach us to be tolerant and adapt,” Conley says. “In our increasingly customized, digitized, on-demand world, there are not many experiences that provide this sort of socialization.”

Additionally, there are broader societal implications for a generation of college-educated adults who have never had a roommate. Household density—the number of persons per room—has been steadily declining over the course of the 20th and 21st centuries. “We used to live with extended kin in small, crowded houses,” Conley says. “Now we have more and more space to ourselves. Thus, the college dorm experience was one of the last bastions of shared, cramped quarters for those of us who don't go to prison or enlist in the military.”  

He adds, “It's a shame that this training is now going away slowly, leaving us increasingly with no experience of cohabiting with difference.”

Even Kiessling, while grateful to have his own dorm room, isn’t ready to do away with the idea of roommates altogether. Despite his bad experience freshman year, he recommends sharing a room at least once during one’s college career. “I still do believe that there’s a lot to be said for the college experience—I think everyone should live away from home and with a roommate for at least their first year,” he says. “It helps build some pretty important life skills, and even if you don’t form a good relationship with your roommate, conflict management will still be helpful in the future.”

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David R. Wheeler is a freelance writer based in Lexington, Kentucky, and an assistant professor of journalism at Asbury University.

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