College Roommates: Lifelong Friends or Horror Stories Moving in with a college roommate is a common rite of passage. Often the experience can lead to deep long-lasting friendships. But for some students moving in with a stranger can be nightmarish. To mitigate the risk of clashes, many colleges have developed complex strategies for pairing students. Toni Greenslade-Smith, Associate Director of University Housing at Ohio State and Charles Gibbs, Interim vice-provost for student affairs at Howard University in Washington, DC., reveal exactly how they make the matches.
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College Roommates: Lifelong Friends or Horror Stories

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College Roommates: Lifelong Friends or Horror Stories

College Roommates: Lifelong Friends or Horror Stories

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So just what is the magic or not so magic formula that colleges use to create roommate pairings and avoid some of the more unfortunate stories we've just heard? We've asked two university housing administrators to share their secrets. Toni Greenslade-Smith is the associate director of university housing at Ohio State University. She joins us from member station WOSU in Columbus. Welcome.

Ms. TONI GREENSLADE-SMITH (Ohio State University): Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: And here in the studio with me from Howard University in Washington is Charles Gibbs, who is interim vice provost for student affairs. Thank you for coming in.

Mr. CHARLES GIBBS (Howard University): Thank you for having me, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: Now, if I could just start with you, Ms. Greenslade-Smith, you've been at this for 28 years?

Ms. GREENSLADE-SMITH: Yes. It started when I was a graduate student at Ohio State. I did an internship in the housing office and it just became my passion.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WERTHEIMER: Ohio State University has some 6,000 incoming students every year who have to be paired off. And I understand that you do the whole thing yourself by hand.

Ms. GREENSLADE-SMITH: That is correct.

WERTHEIMER: How long does it take?

Ms. GREENSLADE-SMITH: It takes about seven to nine days of like 14-hour days.

WERTHEIMER: How do you start? What are you looking for?

Ms. GREENSLADE-SMITH: Typically when students contract with us we ask them a whole bunch of questions that will help assist me as I match them.


Ms. GREENSLADE-SMITH: We ask them - do they drink? Are they morning or night people? Do they smoke? Do they want overnight guests? Are they neat? Are they messy? Do they snore?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GREENSLADE-SMITH: And then, believe it or not, that's…

WERTHEIMER: I can see how it would be important…

Ms. GREENSLADE-SMITH: That's a deal breaker.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GREENSLADE-SMITH: And then typically, up until a few years ago the compelling issue in roommate matching for us, anyway, was whether a roommate smoked or not. The university has gone smoke free. So that has kind of changed how students come to us. The big issue now is alcohol use. And students really, if they don't drink, they don't want a roommate who drinks. So when we do assignments, the first thing I do is I sort the students by those who say, yes, I will drink, I'm not sure if I'll drink, and no, I won't drink.

And then within those groups, we sort those who say, yes, I smoke, or no, I don't smoke. And then we start - I start the matching process. And I look at - we also ask them for their hobbies, interests, any kind of comments they want to make. And I work on pairing them based on what they tell us.

WERTHEIMER: Mr. Gibbs, you've been in student affairs for what, something like 10 years?

Mr. GIBBS: Oh, roughly about 10 years, yes.

WERTHEIMER: What's the process at Howard for pairing people off?

Mr. GIBBS: What we do is we start off with the roommate preference form. We want to get a sense of what the student's character is like as an individual. They have an option to fill out their roommate preference form. We ask questions such as - are you a night person? Do you wake up early? Do you snore? Do you talk to yourself?

WERTHEIMER: So lots of the same questions.

Mr. GIBBS: Do you sleep with the TV on? And also what your major is. And once we are able to get that information together we try to team them up with an individual closer to their major with consideration for these other things.

WERTHEIMER: Now, everybody at Howard signs a roommate contract - is that right?

Mr. GIBBS: Every person that moves into an on-campus residence hall is required to sign a roommate agreement. It just establishes boundaries. It establishes your likes and your dislikes. It establishes what happens when you're not in your room. We understand in the housing business that, you know, your guest may come over and your roommate's not there. Your roommate comes in and their guest is all over your desk, all over your bed - well, that's a boundary issue.

WERTHEIMER: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. And we're talking about how colleges pair roommates. Now, Ms. Greenslade-Smith, how many people come to you and say, I just can't do this. I can't stand this guy, you got to get me out of here.

Ms. GREENSLADE-SMITH: Any given year we have between 100 and - 150 to 200 students who, over the course of the whole year, put in room change requests.

WERTHEIMER: So that's - that sounds low to me.

Ms. GREENSLADE-SMITH: It is - it's extremely low. Our roommate pairing or matching is unmatched. When we started looking at it, we couldn't believe how successful it really is.

WERTHEIMER: Do you have that kind of success rate at Howard?

Mr. GIBBS: The success rate can be looked on various fronts. We have what we call an intra-hall transfer process that takes place beginning up to the first day of school. And what that says is that, you know, certainly you're going to have your roommate issues - you know, he was wearing my sneakers or she was wearing my blouse. I saw her walking across the campus and she had my hair barrettes in her head. But what's important is that we also give people an opportunity to demonstrate the diversity of what Howard is really made of. So you may meet someone the first week of class. And you may say, you know what, this guy or this young lady is really great, I will love to be roommates. And we live in the same residence hall.

So we do an intra-hall transfer on the good reason, where there's no bad reasons to why they move. Our success rate in terms of an issue rising because of a roommate has not honored the roommate agreement is fairly low. And I agree with my colleague that I have to give credit to our resident assistants and our community directors in residence life because the mediation of working through that is very important also. Our first instinct is not just to move someone because they can't get along. In life there's going to be times where you're not going to get along. You just can't ran away from it or switch jobs.

And so you try to manage that in a way that doesn't necessarily - 'cause we're at 99 percent capacity. So there's not a lot of wiggle room.

WERTHEIMER: Yeah, you can't be too flexible.

Mr. GIBBS: Yeah, once school gets in session, there's not a lot of flexibility, certainly based on your classification for (unintelligible) college student.

WERTHEIMER: Is race or religion a factor in trying to see to it that you're putting people with people they'll feel compatible with?

Mr. GIBBS: Race or religion is not one of the questions that we ask in our preferences form. We have representation from over 100 countries on our campus, from all 50 states representing the diversity of Howard University. So that's an exciting factor in terms of how we view our roommate agreement and how we match people up.

WERTHEIMER: Now, one of the things that I was interested in is how the Internet affects roommate biz. I've heard young people talking about how they got to know their roommates, they checked them out on Facebook. They even went Internet shopping together for their dorm rooms.

Mr. GIBBS: Well, that works in two ways, Linda. Facebook could be either be your friend, but Facebook can also be a detriment to the roommate relationship. You're having an agreement with you roommate, you guys have already logged on as friends on Facebook, and now you start posting those intimate conversations, those little details of your roommate because you guys are not getting along, that can be an ingredient for disaster.

WERTHEIMER: So that - they should be discrete.

Mr. GIBBS: Absolutely.

WERTHEIMER: What about Ohio State? What do you think?

Ms. GREENSLADE-SMITH: I would tell you, my staff says that Facebook is the devil because when - honestly, it's the parents who have the issue. Students will go out there, and they'll say, well, yeah, I know that's fake, or I know blah, blah, blah, or they'll have these conversations. But parents will get out there and Facebook their students' roommates, and that's when the issues really come to the fore for us.

WERTHEIMER: The phenomenon known as helicopter parents, those parent who are paying maybe a little bit more attention than they need to.

Ms. GREENSLADE-SMITH: Yes. We find our students tend to be a lot more flexible than their parents.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WERTHEIMER: And maybe don't have quite the expectation of privacy.


WERTHEIMER: What about the worst pair of roommates that you can think of? Did anything turn out really, really badly?


(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GREENSLADE-SMITH: We had two students who, for medical reasons, needed a room with a bathroom. And so, I paired them together. Well, they got here, and the one's mother had her son claim the bottom bunk and then refuse to let him unbunk the beds. And the other student arrived, and his mother was insistent that her son couldn't be on the top bunk, and the other mother was, like - and it was the mothers. It really was a roommate nightmare. Both spent the night in the room on the floor…

WERTHEIMER: With their children?

Ms. GREENSLADE-SMITH: …with their children, you know, because neither one of them would let the men decide for themselves. That was a situation where we ended up having to move one of them because the mothers, and this is terribly stereotypic, they were out of control. They exploded it.

WERTHEIMER: What about you? Have you got - in the last group that you roomed, did anything turn out badly?

Mr. GIBBS: I don't have a particular instant that happened last class, but over just a period of years, you're going to have various incidents. I mean, she drank too much of my juice, or I was coming home to boil those noodles, and that was my last pack, and they weren't there when I got there. So my roommate doesn't know what happened to them, but I'm the only one - it's just us two.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GIBBS: And so, for the most part, you know, you're going to have those issues, but we like to say that our students are acclimating to their new home away from home pretty well.

WERTHEIMER: Charles Gibbs is interim vice provost for student affairs at Howard University, and Toni Greenslade-Smith is the associate director of university housing at Ohio State. Thanks very much to both of you.


Mr. GIBBS: Thank you very much, Linda.

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