- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 23, 2006

Getting into the college of one’s choice is hard enough. The next challenge for many freshmen is getting a compatible dorm roommate.

Like so many other tasks in modern life, the job these days at larger colleges and universities is done with the assistance of a computer — sometimes exclusively so. Results, many campus housing officials say, prove equally as good as laboring by hand over the matches.

“We match randomly [and electronically] using the date someone applies for housing,” says Jan Davidson, associate director of resident life at the University of Maryland, the office in charge of 4,100 incoming freshmen, 90 percent of whom will live in residence halls. (The other 10 percent are commuters who most likely live at home.) Thus, it can happen that any two women who submit identical data on the same date could end up paired.

Maryland puts a great deal of emphasis on the diversity of its student body.

“Applicants understand that as part of the admission process,” he says. “With random choice they are very likely to live with someone of a different background.”

Special requests have to do with the proximity to, for example, a facility with kosher meals. Such requests are honored if possible, but all are based on the date a student applies for housing.

The data used to match roommates are answers to four questions about personal habits designed to elicit the most truthful responses, and, if possible, weed out the views of parents who might try to influence their children’s responses.

Students are asked whether they smoke and whether they object to having a roommate who smokes. (Nowhere on Maryland’s campus is smoking allowed indoors.) The second question: “Would others regard you as a neat and tidy person, yes or no?” Third: “On a class night, would you expect to go to bed before midnight, yes or no?” And, finally: “Would you regard your room as the primary place to study?”

“As housing administrators we often run into that — a parent trying to get a roommate who meets the parents’ sense of ideals,” Mr. Davidson says. “We find a student who does smoke when they say they do not because mom might not want to see it [in writing].”

The staff honors mutual roommate requests, but these constitute a minority — only a few hundred — and much may depend on whether the students had a chance to choose one another through a meeting at an orientation program on campus. Occasionally, twins request the same room as a way of saving on furnishing expenses, but it also has happened that the computer accidentally paired twins who had not asked to be together.

Other schools go into more extensive questioning, but Maryland “never has found it persuasive enough to assign by common interests,” Mr. Davidson says. “We caution ourselves that the more we ask, the more it enables students to choose someone like themselves. We would resist anything to enable a student to, in essence, choose someone from the same background.”

Rather than reaching for the telephone upon receiving a roommate’s name, many students resort to a Web site aimed mainly at college students called Facebook (www.facebook.com) to trade information if their counterpart also has an account.

Lauren Morrow,19, of Frederick, Md., was luckier than some other freshmen last year in being assigned a roommate with whom she is compatible enough to want to room with her again next year. They bonded well, Miss Morrow says, even to the point of studying together and liking the same color bedspread and towels.

Allison Shockley, 18, of Ocean City, who lives down the hall from Miss Morrow, will not stay with the same roommate next year, she says, but she insists there are “no hard feelings” about the situation. It’s a case of “not hanging out together. We have different friends.”

With freshmen, there is a three-week room freeze at the beginning of the fall semester that is a “testing time” before any changes can occur, depending, too, on when and where room vacancies open up. Typically at Maryland, about 200 roommate changes take place after the first month. The university counts a total of 8,250 students living in 48 residence halls.

At considerably smaller American University, the key questions are fewer and the computer does even less work, according to Julie Weber, executive director of housing and dining programs.

“What we care about is to get the gender correct [male with male, e.g.] and not put smokers with a nonsmoker,” she says. (Smoking is not permitted inside buildings at American.)

The computer basically is used to store data, and assignments are done by hand in the order room deposits are received for an average-size incoming class of 1,350 freshmen.

Not relying totally on computers gives residence life staff a lot of leeway, sometimes even allowing them a bit of fun in the bargain.

“One year we had three freshmen all of whose last names were three different types of beer, and we put them together because we thought it was humorous,” she reports. She doesn’t know if the trio stayed together.

Georgetown University for three years has relied on its own in-house computer system called CHARMS (Campus Housing Roommate Matching System) that allows freshmen to basically choose their own roommates. Each person opting for this method — about half of an entering class of 1,580 does so — first completes an anonymous online “living questionnaire” about his habits.

“You get identified by a number and then people talk back and forth,” says Jonalyn Greene, Georgetown’s executive director of housing. “They can self-identify. Once you meet someone, you might invite that person to be a roommate, and if accepted you then find out the name.”

The system will open again in May for the fall freshman class.

Small colleges with more limited financial resources assign roommates differently, says Stephanie Gordon, 31, director of educational programs at the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators. She is a graduate of Simmons College near Boston and has worked at Chatham College outside Pittsburgh.

“The personal touch is the hallmark of the experience. I met my roommate at an orientation event and we chose each other,” she recalls. “Having two compatible people makes you perform better academically. It makes a huge difference when people are matched by similar habits.”

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