Colleges Adopt Online Roommate Matching

Aug. 30, 2003 -- — At hundreds of college campuses across the country this weekend it is the annual ritual of "meet the roommate."

It is a time of anxiety, as well as discovery, as most incoming freshmen move into a dormitory with a roommate chosen by college administrators.

At Emory University in Atlanta, Emily Crawford and Monica Samanta recently met face to face for the first time. But they have known each other for months.

Each chose the other in a new online matching service that Emory and four other schools are offering for the first time this academic year.

"I've been in touch with Emily since May," said Samanta, who grew up on Long Island, N.Y., and in Saudi Arabia. ""A lot of my friends, they just found out about their roommate assignments just a week ago."

"I like having an idea of what I'm getting into here," said Crawford, who is from Atlanta. "This way we can plan ahead. I can say, 'I'm bringing the iron; can you bring the ironing board?' "

Online vs. Offline

The online program was developed by WebRoomz Corporation of Atlanta, which sells it to colleges and universities for about $35,000.

It works much like an online dating service. Students use a screen name, not their real name, and state their preferences, likes, dislikes, interests, neatness and sleeping habits.

The computer system then will "auto match" the closest pairs. And like an online dating service, students may have 10 or 15 potential roommates to choose from.

And the selection occurs well before the school year begins, so the new roommates can become acquainted.

Under the traditional system, incoming students fill out questionnaires and personal profiles. From these piles of paper, administrators then match incoming students.

It is not yet clear whether the online system works as well, but more and more schools are adopting it.

Familiar Faces

The University of Utah in Salt Lake City, with 22,000 undergraduates, allows students to choose not only their roommates, but also their rooms, online — instead of a random, or lottery, process.

Barbara Remsburg, associate director of residential living, believes the new system can ease the stress associated with the transition to college.

"They can talk back and forth for the whole summer," she said. "So when they arrive on campus, if they knew no one else," they know a roommate.

Emory's Melissa Trifiletti, associate director of residence life, seconds that notion.

"I think if you are more comfortable with who you're living with, the stress is less and you'll feel better about coming to college," she said.

Utah freshman Marisa Martinez endorses that idea, too.

"I think it's better to be with somebody that you're going to have things in common with," Martinez said

Both administrators said it gives the students important involvement.

"This really puts the control with the students so that they are in charge of their own destiny," Trifiletti said.

Added Remsburg, "They're invested. They've chosen who they're living with."

Some Worry

Many college administrators, however, worry about the online programs and another trend: Many colleges are building dormitories that offer single rooms and no roommate. Could this undermine the essence of college — diversity, problem solving and learning about others?

New York's Barnard College, with more than 500 incoming freshmen this year, is sticking with the traditional system.

"The process has worked for us," says Cristen Scully Kromm, acting director of college activities. "We've seen good things come out of it."

Her worry is the issue of diversity.

"After college, or in the workplace, or before college, people tend to cling to people who are like them," Kromm said. "If you're not spending some time in college or in a setting where you are forced to interact with people aren't like you, when are you going to have the chance to do it?"