Researchers: Self-selecting college roommates can improve grades

Roommate-matching services have been criticized as tools that prevent students from meeting diverse people, but their supporters argue that students should be allowed to make their own choices.

Sifting through Facebook data for a roommate who likes the same music, espouses the same politics, and hails from a similar background isn’t just for picky incoming college freshmen: It also could make sense for students seeking an academic advantage weeks before the semester begins.

Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (SIUE) is among the 40 campuses that have turned to a web-based roommate matching system called RoomSync, which brings together potential roomies in an online repository where students are matched with like-minded peers.

Think of it as a dating site for incoming freshmen hoping to avoid the ever-present irritating roommate. The pen-and-paper questionnaire soon could be a campus artifact.

When students have been granted on-campus housing, they are permitted to join RoomSync’s network, where they can peruse peers’ lifestyle preferences and personal Facebook information. Once a student has found a potential match, a report is dispatched to both students.

But colleges aren’t using RoomSync just to appease demanding freshmen and their parents. SIUE research showed that students who were allowed to self-select their roommate were “significantly more successful in college and had a better overall college experience.”

Conflict with roommates has consistently ranked among the top five reasons students drop out of college. Schools that have used self-selecting online services have reported a 65-percent reduction in roommate conflicts, while 48 percent of residence hall staffers said conflicts were “less severe” after adopting the service.

TJ Logan, associate director of housing for administrative services at the University of Florida, said in a recent interview that UF officials were more resistant to the technological change in roommate matching than were incoming students.

The system’s flexibility, he said, was a selling point for university decision makers.

“Convincing students to use it was the easiest part of this,” Logan said. “The hardest part of it was convincing ourselves internally that [it] didn’t just make sense, but [was a move] we had to take. … We knew what we wanted to do. It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution, so we picked and chose how we wanted to use it.”

Roommate-matching services have long been criticized as tools that prevent students from meeting diverse groups of people in their new campus environment, allowing students instead to pick and choose who they will socialize with. Logan disagrees.

Logan said even for higher-education officials who agree with that common criticism, students should be allowed to make the choices they believe are best for them.

“There’s a certain level of trust here,” he said. “You have to trust your students a little bit in a way that we haven’t before. … Social media is about giving up control, not taking it.”

The community of SIUE roommate seekers was connected quickly and thoroughly once the school adopted RoomSync, according to a case study published this year.

Only one among more than 1,000 new SIUE students did not have a Facebook account—not a particularly shocking statistic as national surveys show 96 percent of college students use Facebook.

Forty-four percent of incoming students entered the university’s RoomSync database, resulting in 894 Facebook messages exchanged between students, 190 wall posts, and 1,053 Facebook friend requests sent between potential roommates.

SIUE students averaged 32 visits to the RoomSync app as the school year approached, according to the case study. There were more than 19,000 total visits to the app.

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