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College roommate troubles solved by roommate apps

College roommates
College roommates
Photo by Sara D. Davis/Getty Images

Rolling Stone got it right in August 28 issue featuring “The New Science of Pairing Roommates.” The article states, “For decades, universities believed that acclimating to the quirks of a complete stranger was an essential part of college.” In other words, laziness and lack of dedication to student living as a part of a quality learning atmosphere meant many students suffered with poorly chosen roommates. Resident Advisors seemed to be on scene only to tell students to try to work it out.

Now, there’s an app for that. In fact, there are several apps for that. In 2009, Robert Castellucci co-created RoomSync with Michael Hacker, Alex Edelsburg, and Ariel Himmelstern after working on pairing college roommates for a university housing office. He said, “We’d get 30, 40, 50 calls a days asking for a new roommate based on their Facebook profile.” Sounds like what many young people experience with employers checking out their Facebook page prior to hiring them. Seeing something negative can be a real turnoff.

RoommateFit’s founder, Justin Mares, suffered under a bizarre roommate experience his freshman year at University of Pittsburgh. He was paired with a student who spoke to his girlfriend in baby talk, hardly ever left the room, slept strange hours, and covered his body in anti-itch power – in the room, leaving tons of it on the floor.

Mares told his alma mater in PittBusiness, "Studies show that roommate conflict leads to decreased GPA, decreased happiness, less satisfaction with the university, and is a major factor of many dropouts." He tooted his horn, "It's like eHarmony for roommates.” The roommate service asks questions which focus on personality and habits, but not on religion, race, or superficial interests. “RoommateFit has been fantastic, and we’ve seen a substantial decrease in roommate conflicts,” said Jeanne Hacker of Ohio University as quoted on RoommateFit’s page.

It’s never been a straightforward process picking roommates. The modern student’s comfort in social media environments opens them up to be, perhaps, a bit more honest than formal paper housing applications allowed in the past. Now it almost sounds fun.

New Mexico State reported that 50% of students asked to switch roommates when the school chose for them. However, when students used RoomSync at NMS, that number dropped to 10%, according to Julie Weber, director of housing. Not only that, their GPAs were .25 points higher, and re-enrollment boosted 6.6% to 96%. The belief that happy students mean higher GPAs shouldn’t have ever been so far-fetched. Those who selected their own roommates are less likely to complain. Weber said, “They are more invested in who they have selected. They can’t blame us for it.”

Some schools, like NYU, won’t even consider it. “Education’s about putting people in uncomfortable situations so they start to learn about themselves,” according NYU’s head of housing, Tom Ellet. He referred to apps as a “customer-service tool,” and emphasized, “there’s a big difference between customer service and education.” Those who believe customer service and education are intertwined will shop around for a better experience.

Personally, I spent a few years working for the housing offices of two universities. As an undergraduate, I carefully laid out hundreds of paper applications on the floor, taking up huge amounts of space. One gust of wind and it was all over. I painstakingly tried to match interests and apartments. I knew of so many mismatches, and was trying to help prevent problems. My boss said, “You’re taking too long!”

My boss finished the job, mismatching me, of course. Emily, though very nice, was never there. She woke me up at 5:30 am every morning. When I complained, she switched to 5. Finally, we switched her around in our apartment. We nicknamed her "Emileave" because her appearances were rare. She probably would have been happier living with her boyfriend. A roommate app probably would have prevented this kind of conflict.

When I served as a graduate "community adviser" in the university apartments, roommates were randomly selected. We had individual bedrooms and shared 2 bathrooms and 1 living room. My problem roommate decided (via screaming) that we ought to share in cleaning dishes after cooking – even though I had a meal plan and hadn’t been invited to her dinner parties which crammed her 10 cronies into the space. And if she was cold, she cranked on the heat to make 3 other roommates hot rather than put on a sweater because, she screamed, “I don’t feel like it.” Luckily, her refreshing removal occurred when she assaulted another student. I had tried to warn housing staff that she was potentially violent, but was ignored. Certainly a roommate app would have helped, at least a little.

My next apartmentmate was a friend, but I liked her better before we roomed together. She made me feel sorry for her that her roommates were mad at her, but never told me why. It turned out her eating disorder led her to hide food in her room, which she left to rot. Due to nightmarish end of year cleaning, she was charged her full deposit. Would an app take such an odd behavior into account? And are there actually people who would not mind such conduct?

There is still a chance that some may put on a happier face just for the cameras, for Facebook, or as influenced by parents, rather than making their own choices. Some students change significantly when they get to college. Some come out of the closet. Others discover drinking and drugs away from parental controls. Still others deal with illness or emotional emergencies such as being raped. Some become sexually involved for the first time, and will want to use their room to explore that. It’s not possible to know how everything will work out. But roommate selection apps and universities using their own in-house systems seem to be a step in the right direction.