Sunday, February 29, 2004
Natalie Myers has gambled at the roommate roulette table most of her college career.
For three of her four undergraduate years at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and now in her first year as a graduate student at Kansas University, Myers anted up her housing application and let a computer choose who she'd be sharing a tiny room with for the entire school year.
In all but one instance -- when a dormmate turned out to be a pothead -- Myers has been happy with the return on her bet.
But not all wagers turn out as sweet.
"Some of the alums have come back and said, 'Do you know who you put me with?' and we laugh," says Nancy Richard, interim dean of students at Baker University in Baldwin, who's been hand-matching the school's roommates for 21 years.
Entire Web sites are devoted to roommate unrest -- tales as varied as tip-toeing around compulsive neat freaks to wading through piles of pizza boxes and dirty underwear to walking in on bizarre sex acts.
No matter how many questions colleges ask high school seniors about when they go to sleep, what kind of music they dig or whether they'll have overnight guests -- and who's going to be honest about that when their parents are looking over their shoulder at their application? -- pairing complete strangers is a crapshoot.
"You just get thrown into the pot, and they just draw people out," Myers says.
The way that pot is stirred varies at colleges across the country.
While a handful of major universities have turned over roommate matching to an online firm called WebRoomz, Kansas colleges large and small continue to manage their systems from within.
KU only considers a few factors before letting a computer randomly match more than 3,000 incoming freshmen each May. K-State combines computer matching with an in-depth personal survey that residence hall directors can use to better tailor pairs. And Baker, a small private school with only 280 new students moving into campus housing each year, hand-matches each and every roommate after scouring questionnaires.
Of course, most colleges give students the option of picking their own roommates (it has to be a mutual choice). But beyond that, potluck's the word.
"Basically I didn't know all my college career who I was going to live with, and it's worked out pretty well," Myers says. "It's kind of fun just to see who you're going to meet. UMKC was really a big cultural melting pot. You got to live with tons of different nationalities and ethnicities and origins."
Myers now lives in Jayhawker Towers with a girl from South Korea and one from the East Coast.
Exposing students to diversity is one of the goals of KU's housing department, says Diana Robertson, associate director for residence life at KU.
That's why KU hasn't considered using WebRoomz, a system that allows students to self-select roommates.
"My take on that would be I'm probably going to go out and search for someone I think is like me," Robertson says. "The educational benefit of that may not be incredibly great."
Instead of focusing on pinning down students' quirks during the application process -- quirks that usually change when a high school senior meets the absolute freedom of college -- KU relies on roommate agreements to keep the peace.
Roommates sit down in the fall and agree on rules, such as whether the room will be used for socializing or studying, whether food will be shared, how often the room will be cleaned and what "clean" really means.
The contract puts all the roomies on the same page.
But, Robertson says, "some people simply are incompatible. Then we have a room-change process."
K-State first assigns students to buildings and then lets residence life coordinators review the computer's tentative pairings and make changes if they detect a mismatch.
It's more an art than a science, says Bob Burgess, associate director for housing and dining services at K-State, who says even matches that look good on paper -- or roommate pairs who select each other, for that matter -- can go wrong.
Burgess' own wife had difficulty when she was in college with a roommate she hand-selected, not realizing their study habits would clash.
But unresolvable conflicts don't occur that often at K-State, Burgess says. Of the approximately 2,700 new students moving into campus housing each year, less than 100 request room changes, he says.
Such shifts are few and far between at Baker, too, says Nancy Richard, who considers even the most minute details before pairing people off.
"I've been doing this for so long I don't have very many misses," she says. "I spend a lot of time on it. I wait until I have a really big healthy number of contracts in before I start assigning because ... when you get close to school starting, that's when there's some misses."
For Laura Fearey, a KU freshman from Wichita, that miss came early in her college career. Her first semester in Ellsworth Hall, she ended up with three roommates who partied and stayed out late and seemed to have little respect for her quieter lifestyle.
One of the girls once left a bowl of soup sitting on the kitchen counter for three weeks. Fearey finally ended up cleaning it out, "which was interesting."
Toward the end of last semester, Fearey was in bed and heard one of her roommates throwing up after a night of hitting the bottle. She heard another roommate say, 'Wait, let me get Laura's towel."
"I just picked that towel up and put it in a bag until I went home and did laundry," Fearey says.
She moved out a few weeks later.
The last straw for Myers came one December when, after a semester of watching one of her UMKC roommates come home "drunk out of her mind," she found a huge plastic baggy of marijuana on her desk.
"I just went down to the front desk and pretty much busted her," Myers says.
Her roommate, seething because she was out a lot of money, moved out after winter break.
Chalk it up to irreconcilable differences -- and roommate-matching systems that gamble to make two of a kinds from a deck of wild cards.