And the roommates students want might not always be the best roommates for them, in schools’ eyes. As the Dartmouth College economist Bruce Sacerdote, who’s studied the effects of random roommate assignments, wrote last year in an analysis for The Conversation, “Natural instincts do not always benefit us in the long run.” “As human beings we naturally gravitate towards our comfort zone and find peers who look a lot like ourselves,” he went on. But as campus administrators have long argued, people (ought to) attend college not only to get a degree, but also to transcend their comfort zone—by engaging with people, disciplines, and ideas that diverge from what they are used to.
“I absolutely do not think we would have found each other [if we’d been allowed to choose],” Rachel Harshaw says of her college roommates. Harshaw graduated from New York’s Hamilton College in 2017. Incoming Hamilton freshmen fill out a detailed questionnaire, and a team in the college’s residence-life office pairs each student with one or more living buddies. This system assigned Harshaw to a suite of six freshmen total, none of whom appealed to her when she did her pre-matriculation internet sleuthing. One of them was a softball player who looked like she would be the outgoing, Greek-life, jock type; another was a popular, blond theater lover. Neither seemed like a potential friend to Harshaw, who’s shy; she was “terrified,” she told me.
Read: Our roommates, ourselves
“I’m a picky person; I’m a skeptical person,” said Harshaw, who now works as a program manager at the MGH Institute of Health Professions in Boston. “Going into my freshman year, I was so wanting to pick my own roommate.” Today she considers those suitemates her best friends. She currently lives with two of them in Boston. “I was so upset that they were being handed to me, and I was so nervous about it,” Harshaw said. “But at the end of the day, if I hadn’t taken those friendship risks, it’s kind of scary to think about where I’d be.”
Roommate assignments are a high-stakes endeavor, given how important that relationship can end up being. The bond can be so tight, one study found, that the two students—if they’re friendly—tend to adopt each other’s speech patterns. Even roommates who aren’t super close can have a profound influence on each other, if only because of how much time they spend together: While only 37 percent of the student participants in a 2006 study identified their roommate as their “best friend,” close to half of the respondents said they spent more time with their roommate than with any other friend. An immense body of research demonstrates the impact a student’s living buddy can have on that student’s grades, career choice, beliefs, and social habits (such as drinking behavior).
These stakes are a big reason colleges put so much stock into the roommate-matching process. Schools have an interest in ensuring that students thrive, and whom a freshman lives with can have an immense impact on her long-term success in college and beyond. As Sacerdote alluded to, a peer who on paper may seem appealing to a roommate-seeking freshman may not end up being the best match for that freshman—or may be so similar that living with her undermines the freshman’s ability to experience new things in college. “The purpose of living on campus is to be exposed to more diversity in all arenas of life,” Northwestern’s Gonzalez says, “whether it’s ethnicity or culture or socioeconomic status or where we’ve grown up.”