The Drawbacks To Picking Your Own College Roomie

Read Dalton Conley's New York Times Op-Ed, "When Roommates Were Random."

Traditionally, college roommates were randomly assigned. Today, many students are pairing off themselves via social networking. Sociologist Dalton Conley says that's unfortunate, as young people are losing the opportunity to learn to get along with people unlike themselves.

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NEAL CONAN, host: Many college freshmen finesse the roommate issue by looking for like minds on Facebook or roomsurf.com. And while it might seem like a sensible way to reduce the stress of life away in a dorm room, something may be lost. In an op-ed in The New York Times, Dalton Conley argued that the price of control can be serendipity.

So what did you learn living with your college roommates? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Dalton Conley is now a sociologist and professor at New York University and joins us from Miami. Nice to have you with us today.

DALTON CONLEY: Thanks for having me, Neal.

CONAN: And back in your day, you got a form that asked whether you wanted to bunk with a smoker or with a non-smoker, and you wrote down?

CONLEY: I wrote down party animal in the space where it asked me that.

CONAN: And you got?

CONLEY: I got, I think, the opposite of a party animal, which is probably a good thing. As a university policy, it's not put a party animal with somebody who requests one. Bad combination there. I got a very quiet Republican son of a judge from Sacramento, and - who was like nobody else I had met before in New York City, where I grew up.

CONAN: And in your article, you say that's really the point. Like nobody else you knew, growing up in New York City. You got to know, by dint of - well, you had to - somebody who was very different from anybody else you ever grew up with.

CONLEY: Right. I think that's part of the experience of college as conceived of in America, where we live in this kind of halfway step between home and complete independence, is that you're supposed to become a cosmopolitan citizen of the world. And how else are you going to do that if you stay in your social cocoon and only hang out with folks that you have an affinity with already? And the roommate moment is one of the few in which - at least in my day - you didn't have control over who you're hanging out with.

CONAN: And as you said in your piece, there's probably only the college freshman dorm experience, the military and prison where you're forced to live with somebody else you don't know for nine months.

CONLEY: Yeah, unless you're in an arranged marriage, I guess. You know, a 10 by 10 foot room with two people who have to negotiate everything from, you know, whether or not to have the window open to get fresh air, or it's too cold versus turn your lights on or off, or what time bedtime or wakeup time is. All that is I think a pretty good experience for other social situations, ranging from getting along with people at work that you may not necessarily, you know, particularly want to - to be with, and also, obviously, marriage and raising a family, which kind of continues on your...

CONAN: And - oh, there he is back. We've momentarily dropped the line on the phone there from Miami. What did you learn from your college roommate?

CONLEY: Oh, I learned personally that, you know, Republicans weren't a foreign species, an alien species, and that someone can be - he was in a fraternity, actually, something that I had no clue anything about, yet he was quiet and studious at the same time. So it kind of got me intrigued about what fraternity life was like. I didn't end up - actually, he convinced me to try to join his fraternity, and I have to embarrass myself by saying, I didn't get in, which is probably a good thing, given my personality in the long run. But it certainly led me to try new experiences, new music - musical tastes, hear the arguments of the son of a Reagan - Ronald Reagan appointee, which, again, was completely foreign to my cultural bubble, coming from Manhattan, out to California. So it really made me more tolerant, I would say, in the long run.

CONAN: Others might say, look, the experience of being pretty much away from home and on your own for the first time for most of these college freshmen, that's stressful enough. If you can reduce that by knowing a little bit about the person you're going to room with and having some degree of comfort, well, a little - that might go a long way. Are you there, Dalton Conley? And Dalton Conley appears to have lost contact with us. In the meantime, we'd like to hear your thoughts on what you learned from your college roommates, whether they were randomly selected or not. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And we'll begin with Dave, Dave with us on the line from Salt Lake City.

DAVE: How do you do?

CONAN: Hi.

DAVE: Well, I grew up in a very small town in Montana, and I would say the closest African-American was at least 50 miles away, and a very small school. And I went to the Air Force Academy in the late '70s. And my college freshman roommate was an African-American guy. We got to be great friends. And having never been exposed to anybody not of my race, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that he was just like everybody else.

CONAN: Just like - it's interesting, in his piece, Dalton Conley cited David Harris, a sociologist at Cornell, who studied roommates and found in 2002 that white students who were assigned a roommate of a different race ended up more open-minded about race. And that sounds like he's describing you.

DAVE: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. And have maintained friendships to this day.

CONAN: And you still are in contact. That's interesting.

DAVE: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: What in particular - other than some degree of, well, this is a human being much like myself, what did you learn from your roommate?

DAVE: Well, it, you know, our backgrounds were so disparate. You know, me from a very small town in Montana, he from a very large city, and yet we had more in common than we had apart. And - plus, being thrown into the cauldron of the Air Force Academy and the pressures of the freshman year, you know, the shared hardship, so to speak, brought us even closer.

CONAN: It was the Air Force Academy, so a pretty intense first year.

DAVE: Oh, yes. Yeah.

CONAN: All right. Well, you survived your time in Colorado Springs. Thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

DAVE: I did. Thank you.

CONAN: And Dalton Conley is back with us on the line. We're talking on the phone this time. A noble effort to try to hear a better line, but thanks very much for getting back to us.

CONLEY: Thanks. The caller mentioned the Air Force Academy, which, of course, combines two institutions in which you learn how to deal with others. In my own research with Jennifer Heerwig, we found that those who served in the military, despite - in the Vietnam era, despite all the hardships and trauma and all that that's associated with that war, actually had lower divorce rates when you factor out all their other differences in demography and such, we think because they learned how to deal with hardship and with others that they were thrown into a unit with and had to live with, that they had no control over.

CONAN: Let's go next to Melinda, and Melinda with us from Lansing, Michigan.

MELINDA: Hi (unintelligible) thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

MELINDA: My experience with - I went in blind as a freshman, and my roommate was completely different than me. I walked in. She had pink hair. She was very punk, and I was like the shy little nerd in high school. But it worked out great. It was - we're like - I would call her my best friend today. We roomed together all four years of college. I was maid of honor at her wedding. So it was a great experience.

CONAN: And you just described cosmetic differences. Did you learn things from each other?

MELINDA: Oh, definitely yes. She's very artistic. And I learned, you know, to be - I learned a lot more like fun. We did spontaneous, fun stuff. And I definitely was a lot more sheltered, so I learned a lot of just worldly life things from her too.

CONAN: Well, Melinda, thanks very much. And congratulations on a lifelong friendship.

MELINDA: Thank you.

CONAN: There's interest - interesting point you make in the piece, Dalton Conley, that influences can sometimes be negative. Roommates can drive down each other's grades or can drive each other's grades up or down. And what are the different circumstances?

CONLEY: Right. Well, the bottom line is that a roommate's pre-college grades predicts, to a certain extent, your grades as a random roommate assigned to that person. You know, it's not going to determine the difference between an A and a C average. But it was on the order, if I remember correctly, of about a third of a grade, in difference between a B-plus and a B average for your freshman year. And, of course, that has longer term consequences if you've got a good roommate in terms of studious habits and high school GPA versus a less studious roommate, let's say, who is a binge drinker.

Two binge drinkers together was a very - is a very bad combination, for example, was another one on the findings by Bruce Sacerdote, who's an economist at Dartmouth who studied this.

CONAN: Here's an email from Becky in St. Paul: My college roommate and I did not like each other at first because on the surface we had nothing in common. Had we had any say in the situation, we never would have picked each other. Then one night we were both in a bad mood and decided to walk to McDonald's for ice cream. We have now been best friends for 20 years. And this from Michael in Baton Rouge: I learned that the most unpleasant smell to wake up to is that of eggs being burned in the microwave.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: I guess there are lessons and there are lessons.

CONLEY: Right. And I think for - I have to say the - I wrote this piece partly out of selfish social scientific reasons, in that since as social scientists we can't really randomly assign people to be friends or randomly assign people to be - stay married or get divorced or any number of the kind of essential issues we're interested in. We have to be more like detectives than kind of like laboratory scientists and snoop around for some natural occurring event that divides people into a treatment and control group, if you will, to mimic that kind of (unintelligible) model.

And a draft, where there's a draft lottery like in Vietnam or random assignment of roommates or who you get in your cell block or your military unit, are some of the few instances left in the modern world where there is a -people are randomly thrown together, and we can really separate out the effect of how people select their friends versus the - how friend's cause behavior in each other, which is very difficult to disentangled despite all the claims and the kind of - this fad or the trend of claiming social network effects that's going on in social science right now.

CONAN: So you would add - that's perhaps the selfish reason you advocate that other universities follow the lead of Hamilton College where roommate choice is not allowed.

CONLEY: Oh, for my selfish reasons but also for the experience of the kids themselves. This research is ongoing with other folks. There's even studies going on in North Carolina now where they have genotypes. They measure the genomes, the genetic - the DNA markers of incoming freshmen, and then look how particular genetic profiles may interact with each other or with the behavior of roommates.

And lo and behold, if these roommates start requesting each other in massive numbers through their Facebook hook-ups or one of those websites that you mentioned at the top of the segment, then it's not - that research is not going to work anymore. We're not going to know if these people are going to select themselves on - based on their preferences, and we won't know what's the effect and what's the cause.

CONAN: This email from Todd in Knoxville: I had a white South African college roommate by chance. He was a very decent human being, by no means the racist stereotype. This led me to my first airplane flight and my first international trip. Visiting apartheid South Africa was a very difficult experience in many ways, but it opened my eyes as wide as they could go. Had he not been my roommate, I probably would've gone to Philly, nothing against Philly.

And this from another Todd, this one writing from Rochester Mills in Michigan: My roommate loved Diana Ross, and after one year of listening to Diana Ross singing the same songs over and over again from different venues, I, to this day, still cannot bear to hear her voice. Two different perspectives on college roommates. Dalton Conley, thanks very much for your time today.

CONLEY: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: Dalton Conley, a university professor of social sciences at NYU. He wrote the opinion piece "When Roommates Were Random" in The New York Times.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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