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Facebook changing roommate selection process for freshmen

By Jenna Johnson
Washington Post / August 14, 2011

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WASHINGTON - For generations, one of the first challenges of going off to college was meeting the stranger the school chose to be your roommate. Today, a growing number of students are bypassing that tradition and making the choice themselves through online social networking.

Over the next several weeks, many freshmen will arrive at dormitories to move in with roommates they already know, even if they have never met or talked on the phone.

“Realistically, even the most personal roommate-matching service can’t match Facebook,’’ said Adam Gang, 18, of Colorado, who will be a freshman at American University in Washington. “You’re an accepted friend request away from knowing someone.’’

Some college officials say that choosing roommates for students helps ensure they are exposed to different points of view. They worry that incoming freshmen would tend to pick people of the same race, social background, or hometown.

But American University, recognizing that students want a voice in the matter, has come up with a way to help them.

Earlier this year, Gang filled out a short questionnaire: Do you maintain normal sleeping hours? (Yes.) How social are you? (Somewhat.) Sleep style? (Heavy.)

Rather than pairing Gang with a roommate, the housing office sent him a short list of potential matches based on his replies.

American University encourages students to review the matches on an internal networking site or by e-mail - although most students connect on Facebook, said Chris Moody, the school’s executive director of housing and dining programs.

When Gang went to Facebook, he hit it off with James Quigley, 18, of New York. Both students plan to study international relations and love playing sports. They requested to live together and will meet for the first time on move-in day this month.

As more freshmen go online in a quest to shape their living situation, college officials are split on whether it’s a good idea.

A few schools are embracing the movement. Many others have no formal policies on the use of social networking to choose roommates but will offer guidance (encouraging or discouraging) to students who inquire.

At the University of Virginia, the number of requests for first-year roommates has more than doubled in five years. Last year, according to acting housing director Patricia Romer, students were told that it may not be possible to honor all requests.

Giving freshmen more say in their living arrangements can result in fewer roommate conflicts, some college housing officials say.

Living with a stranger is always a risk, but allowing students to pick that stranger builds an investment in wanting to make things work.

But other officials worry that students are focusing on the wrong qualities in these searches - music preferences instead of cleaning habits, funny prom stories instead of rules for overnight guests.

The self-matching process for the class of 2015 started as early as January, when early-admission students began to create Facebook groups. Many of these pages resembled online dating sites, as students queried each other about personality quirks, favorite sitcoms, and drinking habits.

“It came down to even, ‘What colors do you like in your room?’ ’’ said Julie Bogen, 19, of Connecticut, a sophomore at Wheaton College in Massachusetts who found her first-year roommate (now a close friend) on Facebook.

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