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For colleges, matching up roommates is part art, part science
At Barnard College in New York, administrators read over lifestyle surveys and even a student essay in their efforts to make a successful freshman roommate match. At Michigan, they separate the smokers but leave the rest to chance. The University of Utah lets freshmen find their own roommates from anonymous profiles online.
Part art, part science, the roommate-selection process will have a major impact on the lives of the hundreds of thousands of new college students due to arrive on campus in the coming weeks. For many, it will be their first time living with a stranger, and the stakes are high. If a blind date doesn't fly, the pair can part ways forever. But when freshman roommates don't get along, they may be stuck cheek by jowl for nine months.
"If you want to go to bed and they're staying up clicking on their keys, instant-messaging ... it's going to make to make your college experience miserable," said Stephanie Polak, associate director of residence life of Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J.
So how do colleges do it? Larger schools are more likely to rely on computers, smaller ones on the human touch.
Almost all ask a few basic questions, like whether students smoke, stay up late, and consider themselves neat.
Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa., asks students to mark which adjectives from a list of 30 -- such as shy, social and religious -- describe them. Since few match up perfectly, Jonathan Wescott, director of residential life, and an assistant dive in to the responses and play it by ear.
"We're not necessarily looking to have best friends develop," Wescott said. "If they do, that's a bonus. What we're looking for is them to be able to communicate their needs and frustrations."
At Baker University in Baldwin City, Kan., associate dean Nancy Richard, a 24-year veteran of roommate matching, tries to pair local students with those from farther away. She hopes the far-away students will get invited to spend time on weekends with their roommates' families.
Some colleges have lost faith in their matchmaking skills. Many say students often fill out housing forms with their parents hovering nearby, so questions about smoking and drinking are not necessarily accurate. Besides, students can change a lot when they get to college.
A handful of schools, including the University of Utah, have handed the responsibility over to the students themselves, who can pick roommates after viewing anonymous online profiles. The school says requests for roommate changes have fallen about 40 percent.
Some schools, however, like the idea of leaving things to chance. They say college should be about meeting different kinds of people, and they don't want students to live with a clone.
"We would argue that part of the experience of coming to Michigan is facilitating diverse experiences," said Alan Levy, director of public affairs for university housing at the University of Michigan, which separates smokers from nonsmokers but otherwise doesn't ask lifestyle questions. "We think roommates can be a significant part of that."
The colleges that try to play it safe figure students will have plenty of opportunity to meet different kinds of people. But forcing them to live together is a recipe for trouble.
"If I married someone like me we'd be divorced in eight months," said Sheryl Fleury, who makes housing assignments at St. Michael's College in Colchester, Vt. But "in this job you have to assume people want to live with someone similar."