MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
By now, college freshmen are probably getting a feel for their roommates. It might be the only time in their lives they share a space with a complete stranger. Some students aren't comfortable with that. They'd rather choose their roommate. And that's becoming a lot more common. Some colleges let freshmen use apps to find a like-minded match. But Jesse Singal of New York Magazine says those freshmen could be missing out. He's written an article called "In Praise Of The Rando Freshman Roommate." And he joins us now from our New York studios. Jesse, thanks for being with us.
JESSE SINGAL: Thanks for having me.
BLOCK: And the word you're choosing there - rando, meaning random. But it also has kind of a pejorative connotation too, right? Somebody who's kind of creepy?
SINGAL: Yeah, exactly. I think this is a term that was almost certainly coined by someone my age or younger as evidenced by its presence on urbandictionary.com. So random is sort of a value neutral phrase. Rando has an edge of exclusion to it. I mean, the rando is an interloper at a party. And his presence sort of automatically makes things worse for every non-rando there.
SINGAL: So it's understandable that a rando roommate can sort of be a nightmare for a lot of freshmen.
BLOCK: And yet you are writing in praise of that nightmare - of that rando roommate. So what's the defense? Why do you think randomness is a great thing?
SINGAL: Yeah, well, so for this piece I spoke with Bruce Sacerdote. He's an economist at Dartmouth who studies basically how roommates affect one another. And this is sort of something economists and psychologists love to look at. It's like an all-you-can-eat buffet of data for them.
SINGAL: Because in what other context can you say - hey, what would happen if we had a white kid from the Midwest and a recent immigrant from Africa and just made them live together? And what he's found is that random roommates have a way of really expanding each other's social and intellectual interests. Maybe you enter college having no idea that you would be interested in reproductive rights or the Federalist Society or rugby. It can take a rando roommate, someone you have nothing in common with, to teach you that you're interested in these things. One thing he and others have found is that if you have a roommate who's smarter than you and has better study habits, they can slightly improve your GPA - slightly improve your study habits. If you have a roommate who comes from a lower socioeconomic place than you do, living with them will make you more supportive of sort of redistributive policies - of ways of reducing the wealth gap. There's a downside to this, too, which is if you put together two people who are obsessed with PlayStation 4, they're going to be actually less productive. They can drag each other down.
BLOCK: Or maybe one who has that tendency would drag somebody down who would never have dreamed of playing PlayStation all the time. But hey, my roommate's doing it. So I will too.
SINGAL: There are different ways to broaden one's horizon - some involving videogame.
BLOCK: What motivated you to write this article in the first place, Jesse? Is it that students are deliberately finding ways to avoid living with people who might challenge them - might be really different from themselves?
SINGAL: We live in a country with a lot of problems in terms of socioeconomic and racial self-segregation, basically. And kids who go to college tend to be on the more privileged side. So for an 18-year-old coming from a privileged background, this might literally be the only time in their life they're forced a little bit out of their comfort zone - they're forced to see how people from different sorts of backgrounds live.
BLOCK: Well, let me run by you some of the defense of the programs or schools that do let students choose their roommates. And here's what they say. They say it can really help students develop relationships long before they get to school. It can help them keep students in school who might otherwise have a terrible roommate experience and leave - and that the students are more invested in making the relationship work out because they've chosen. Those seem like valid arguments to me. What about to you?
SINGAL: I think they do. And I'm not opposed to students in a freshman class communicating online beforehand. But the idea that kids will invest more in the relationship - the evidence suggests otherwise. I mean, one of my favorite findings from Bruce Sacerdote - from that researcher - was that in Dartmouth at least, if you take two freshman roommates who are white versus a random pair where one is white and one is black, they're equally likely to call each other their best college friend a few years down the line. Like simply living with someone will probably make you invest in your relationship with them. So I think there's something to be said for that element of randomness.
BLOCK: Jesse Singal edits New York Magazine's blog "The Science Of Us." Jesse, thanks so much.
SINGAL: Hey, thanks for having me.
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