So Random

by Phoebe Maltz Bovy

Jesse Singal laments the decline of the traditional college roommate experience, in which you’re paired with a random classmate:

It’s unlikely a circa-2014 college freshman will ever have to go more than a few hours without having a chance to communicate with distant loved ones. All of which only makes the rando roommate more important.

Just ask Bruce Sacerdote, a Dartmouth economist and one of the leading researchers into the effects college roommates have on each other. Sacerdote is a fan of random roommate assignment. Partially, that’s because it’s exactly the sort of event just about all social scientists love: a predictably timed injection of randomness. In what other situation could a researcher — ethically, at least — say, “Hey, let’s see what happens when you have a white Midwesterner live in close quarters with a Vietnamese immigrant for a year!” Since colleges have loads of data about who kids were before they matriculated — and since it’s easy to keep track of them in the years that follow — random roommate assignment is a unique opportunity to study how humans influence one another.

Singal goes on to cite research showing how beneficial roommates-of-difference can be:

According to Sacerdote, research shows that rooming with someone from a lower socioeconomic class “impacts your attitudes about financial aid, about redistribution,” leading to greater support for policies that help close the wealth game. It’s easy to see why: Rich kids tend to come from rich towns, and as a result don’t have much of a sense of what it means to struggle economically. But if you live with someone who is living financial aid check to financial aid check, things will (hopefully) snap into perspective pretty quickly.

This is well and good, until you consider how it goes for the learning-experience-providing roommate.

If you’re the black student brought in to diminish the endemic racism in a sheltered white one, the poor student offered up to teach a rich kid that not everyone winters in Switzerland, the gay kid who will gosh darn it help rid his roommate of homophobia… this is maybe a bit much to ask of a college freshman. The learning-experience model seems geared towards the relatively-advantaged roommate. (And to social scientists.) What’s in it for Mr. or Ms. Learning Experience? Singal briefly turns to the advantages for the have-not:

None of this is to imply that these rando roommates exist solely as plot devices to educate their whiter or richer roommates (and they may be doing just as much griping to their friends back home about their own rando roommate — the concept of rando is, of course, relative). They, too, can derive benefits from living with someone different with them — from exposure to social networks they wouldn’t have had access to otherwise (if you’re a recent grad from a low-income background trying to get financial support for a business venture, imagine how much easier that will be if you roomed with the son of a hedge-fund manager your freshman year), or to the aforementioned contagious effects of interests or ideology. In many of these instances, the benefits flow in both directions.

This ignores the stress – on top of everything else you’re doing first-term freshman year – of being a representative of your kind. The “benefits” would seem to flow primarily towards the already-more-advantaged roommate.

Am I, then, a proponent of self-segregation via app? No. What I’d advocate is random matching in halls or suites, but without the bedroom-sharing requirement. No one should have to be on call at all hours to provide a taste of authentic Otherness.