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In roommate selection, the old way still works

Tom Sommers of Wayland was pleased with his roommate from Chicago, who was assigned by Amherst College.
Tom Sommers of Wayland was pleased with his roommate from Chicago, who was assigned by Amherst College.david L. Ryan/Globe staff

After Tom Sommers accepted a spot at Amherst College in May, he didn’t search for a roommate via Facebook or browse profiles of other students on a roommate-finding website.

He waited for the college to match him with his freshman roommate, using answers from a simple questionnaire. The low-tech, old-school approach is exactly what Sommers wanted.

“I didn’t want to pick my own roommate. I wanted to meet someone new from a different part of the country,” said Sommers, who lives in Wayland and begins classes Sept. 4. “It’s cool to be introduced to new types of people.”

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Amherst is among the colleges eschewing the digital push in favor of their time-tested methods for matching freshman roommates. The “online dating” model, administrators say, fails to encourage first-year students to step outside their comfort zones and learn to live with someone who may be completely different.

It’s a departure from the trend of recent years, as many colleges and universities allowed incoming students to find their own roommates using Facebook or roommate-pairing websites such as RoomSurf and RoomSync. A few colleges have built in-house online forums to help first-years find their perfect match.

“Technology is wonderful and great in so many ways,” said Torin Moore, Amherst’s residential life director. “But I think there’s something unique about that first-year experience. It’s about having that opportunity to be stretched.”

The stakes are high. Colleges know that roommate matches can make or break the freshman experience. A report published in the National Bureau of Economic Research about Dartmouth College found that first-year students’ grades and extracurricular involvement are often affected by the work ethic and social engagement of their roommates.

“You don’t have to be best friends with your roommate, but when you go away to college, your room becomes your home,” said Rebecca Bernardo, a junior at Suffolk University, which assigns roommates.

She had a challenging experience with her first-year housing match. “When you hate your roommate so much that you don’t want to go home, that’s a problem,” she said.

The importance of the freshman-roommate relationship has made some schools wary of passing along the responsibility to students. Tufts University, Harvard College, and Smith College also assign first-year rooming slots.

Even at some schools where roommate requests are allowed, students rarely choose the option, said Michael McCorvey, director of residence life at Babson College. He said the “vast majority” at the Wellesley school choose to have roommates assigned to them.

“We like to think students recognize that there is a value in getting to know somebody else,” McCorvey said.

For Amherst’s Moore, a commitment to old-fashioned room assignments has personal resonance: As an African-American freshman from a working-class family in Texas, he was matched with a white student from an upper-middle-class Cape Cod town.

“On paper, it was like, ‘Are you kidding?’ ” Moore recalled. But the two remain friends; Moore was a guest at his old roommate’s wedding reception.

Amherst e-mails students a 19-question survey — the same one used for years — about study habits, cleanliness, sleep style, and extracurricular interests. Administrators pair up the students, one by one.

They start with the easy stuff: Neatniks are matched with cleaning fanatics. Night owls are steered away from the early risers. Students are almost never paired with someone from their hometown or even their state.

Amherst officials also rely on gut feelings about what makes a good match, said Moore. He finds social networks lacking for such an important task. “It feels like a popularity thing. To me, it harkens back to the playground days of being worried about getting chosen for a team,” Moore said.

Still, the do-it-yourself online model remains popular.

Boston University does not endorse Facebook or online matching sites, but more than 1,300 students from the school have signed up on RoomSurf. At Regis College in Weston, 85 percent to 90 percent of freshmen select their roommates.

Administrators from Western New England University in Springfield found the do-it-yourself model so appealing to students, they created their own roommate-browsing network online.

“For us, it’s about making them feel as comfortable as possible in their personal living space,” said Kymberley Hendricks, the school’s area coordinator for traditional housing. “We think it empowers them to become more comfortable sharing with others and reaching out to others.”

About 250,000 students have signed up for RoomSurf over the past three years. The University of Central Florida and the University of Arizona have established official partnerships with the website.

RoomSurf cofounder Justin Gaither said the online forum is popular because it allows students to decide for themselves what is most important.

“That’s a thing a lot of schools are concerned about. Are these students just going to collect identical clones of themselves?” he said. “But you’ve got to trust your students and give them credit that they’re smart enough to know that just because you both watch ‘Jersey Shore’ won’t automatically make you good roommates.”

Sommers was pleased with his Amherst choice, who is from Chicago: Hours after receiving housing assignments, the roommate introduced himself via Facebook and the two talked about sharing amenities.

“So far, it seems like it’s going to be great,” Sommers said.

Things weren’t so good for Bernardo. She filled out the housing survey, but while the two freshman roommates had similar living styles, their personalities clashed. Slammed doors and bouts of passive-aggressive silence ensued. Still, she says assigned roommates are the right choice. “College is all about growing up and finding out what you’re capable of. And your living situation is part of that.”

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