Space Relations: Is It Better to Have a ‘Random’ Roommate Than a Pre-Selected One in the Dorms?

A couple of weeks ago, the New York Times ran an op-ed titled “When Roommates Were Random.” It was written by a college professor at NYU who not only reminisces about his time spent in a freshman dorm but also makes an argument for colleges to issue a ban on what he calls “roommate choice.” As I read it, I found myself wondering, “Is this another one of those ‘way back when I was a boy…’ old-school-versus-new-school subjects, or is this debate still relevant?”

Back when I first started writing this column, one of the first topics I covered was “How To Choose Your First College Roommate In The Dorms.” I didn’t really take a “side,” because I see value in living with a randomly chosen roommate as much as I do in living with a friend or acquaintance. But Dalton Conley, who wrote the Times Op-Ed, does not. He firmly believes (and cites a few studies conducted that overall point in favor of randomness) that following chance leads to new and unpredictable experiences as well as a higher chance of serendipity, not just during your freshman year of college but throughout life. In other words, if going to college is your first time out of your parents’ nest, you shouldn’t try so hard to surround yourself with people who are just like you.

This is the part of his argument I agree with. I do think there are scenarios in which a “sheltered farm boy” who has never been exposed to different races or religions or types of identities would be best placed in a “random” roommate arrangement with someone who fit one of those descriptions. Different is good. It’s important to have dialogues with people who didn’t grow up just like you did, whose experiences and insights can help shape your narrow view of the world as you enter adulthood. But the part that I didn’t agree with came toward the end of the column.

In the last paragraph, Conley writes, “All colleges should follow the lead of Hamilton, where roommate choice is not allowed.” Hm. The first thing I thought when I read that line was, “Isn’t Hamilton a liberal arts school?” The next thing I thought was, “And isn’t the student body fewer than 2,000 people?” Yes, Hamilton touts itself as having “students […] from 49 states and 37 countries; one-quarter of the student body consists of multicultural students from the U.S. or international students.” But when your student population is just a fraction of most state schools’, and your curriculum is geared toward liberal arts, how much room is left for “randomness”? Especially when the 2011-12 academic year costs $42,640 for tuition and fees and $10,830 for room and board.

I say this because Conley’s thrust in his essay is that people should be “trying on new hats and getting exposed to new and different ideas,” but I think there’s a vast difference between getting exposed to new people and ideas in a public school boasting a 30,000+ student population versus a private institution whose student body is oftentimes already used to a higher standard of living. Students who attend private institutions are not always from wealthier families, of course, but many have been exposed to more travel and “perks” than the average student who attends a state university. (I don’t have statistics to back up that claim; it’s just a little something I’ve learned from the School of Life.) So in that sense, being paired up randomly at a private school sounds open-minded, but is entirely different from being paired up with someone random at a state school like the one I went to.

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