The New York Times reports that more colleges are enabling freshman to fill out a questionnaire about “study habits, overnight guests, tidiness, politics, sexual orientation and religion, among other topics” and in the case of NYU or Syracuse University, freshmen then get back a ranking of the most compatible roommates from URoomSurf.com. The freshmen then mutually select which roommates they want.
What’s not to like about an approach that puts college students in the driver’s seat about their dorm-mates? Two things: bridging social capital; and equalizing advantages.
Bridging social capital: Bruce Sacerdote has demonstrated how one’s roommate alters one’s GPA things like which groups are joined. Sacerdote is able to look at Dartmouth, since they randomly assign freshman roommates.
Giving freshman the choice of roommates is sure to minimize bridging social capital (basically ties with people unlike you along some important dimension, like race or social class or religion). Humans were born to “bond” and our natural inclination is to hang out with others like us (“birds of a feather flock together”). There’s nothing morally wrong with that, and when we’re sick or need social support, we’re most likely to get it from our “bonding social capital.” Nonetheless, colleges are a rare opportunity to mix youth across our differences: many colleges, especially elite ones, are more diverse than the K-12 schools we attended or the neighborhoods in which we lived. College students will no doubt form plenty of bonding social ties while at school, but colleges could and should try to help us build more social bridges.
Why? These social bridges help shorten the social distance, not just in those diverse friendships themselves, for all their friends and friends’ friends.
They help break down stereotypes; it’s much easier to hold incorrect stereotypes in the absence of bridging ties and much harder when these stereotypes don’t comport with the reality of one’s diverse friends.
And bridging ties teach us valuable skills in working with others unlike us along some important dimension, skills increasingly called upon in the workplace and the world.
In a society where connections often matter mightily, bridging social ties often help those from less fortunate backgrounds get access to jobs, collaboration partners, political influence, and the like. It is one reason why thoughtful conservative Glenn Loury ultimately called for the continuation of affirmative action, because, without increased diversity in elite institutions of higher education, formerly disadvantaged populations would never be starting from an equal point in terms of their social capital/networks. And Xavier de Souza Briggs has written about how ties of the poor to other poor folks offer critical links for “getting by”, but that links into more wealthy social networks or more powerful political networks are often how the poor “get ahead” or “import clout.”
Dalton Conley, a leading scholar on inequality is a critic of freshmen picking their roommates: “‘Very quickly, college students are able to form self-selected cliques where their views are reinforced…Getting rid of the random assignment of freshmen roommates is going to impoverish the experience of the residential college.”
See “Roommates Who Click” (NYT, 8/22/10 by By Lisa Foderaro)