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More Than A Bunkmate

The Undergraduate

By Judd B. Kessler

John F. Kennedy ’40 had one. Bill Gates, Class of 1977, had one. Almost all of the incoming first-years have one. Tommy Lee Jones ’69 and Al Gore ’69 had each other.

A first-year roommate helps to shape experiences of students at Harvard and at all colleges. For this reason, the Freshman Dean’s Office (FDO) devotes a tremendous amount of resources into setting up first-year housing groups.

The three assistant deans of freshmen sort by hand the more than 1,600 housing applications, where students write about themselves and what kind of roommates they would like. According to Assistant Dean of Freshmen James N. Mancall, the process “takes almost all summer. It’s very intense.”

In fact, Harvard is one of the only schools of its size to devote so much time and energy to first-year rooming groups. At some schools, the responsibility of finding a roommate has fallen to the incoming students themselves.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, some schools used self-matching systems this year to pair first-year roommates electronically. The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and Georgia’s Kennesaw State University used an Internet matchmaking system developed by WebRoomz, an Atlanta-based company. University of Texas at Austin and Ball State University have developed their own technologies for the same purpose.

These systems require students to fill out an intensive survey about themselves. Reminiscent of Harvard’s “datamatch,” the systems match roommates according to similar answers to a list of specific questions about their personal preferences and habits. And while these systems might save administrative resources and eliminate some roommate uncertainty for first-years, they inhibit what should be the real use of first-year rooming groups in a college environment—a pedagogical tool for the university.

Roommates can make their peers better students and more social people, and they can open students up to new worlds of culture and tolerance. A study done by Bruce Sacerdote at Dartmouth College in 2001 shows that first-years’ GPAs are influenced by their roommates. At Dartmouth, where roommates are assigned almost entirely randomly, if a student had a relatively higher level of academic achievement in high school or plans to graduate with honors, he significantly improves the GPA of his roommates.

It is not entirely clear how this effect works. The GPA increase could potentially come from homework help, encouraging proper study habits or creating implicit competition. Interestingly, however, the positive academic effects only work in one direction. Your grades do not go down if your roommate had relatively low academic achievement in high school.

The academic advantage of pairing higher achieving students with lower achieving ones as roommates is clear—on the whole it will improve students’ performance in class.

Most schools have not yet taken advantage of these academic “peer effects” in first-year housing. For example, the deans at Harvard do not look at students’ high school achievements when creating rooming groups.

Of course, improving grades is not the only priority in planning rooming groups. Rooming groups can also be a social pedagogical tool. Results from another economics paper by Sacerdote, written with Harvard’s own Professor of Economics Edward L. Glaeser and released this June, indicate that students have a large impact on whether their roommates, and the other people on their floor, join social organizations like sororities and fraternities.

While this study focuses on social clubs at Dartmouth, it seems obvious that the effect would also be true of other extracurricular activities at similar undergraduate institutions like Harvard. As a first-year, I was drawn to some IOP forums because my roommate was interested in politics and wanted to go. I often tagged along with another roommate to the MAC on days that I would not have gone on my own. For many first-years, the activities in which they participate, the parties to which they go and the people whom they meet are influenced by their roommates.

While the deans at Harvard do not attempt to take advantage of academic peer effects, they are very conscious of social effects when grouping students. As Dean Mancall explained to me, “Our general philosophy is that we are trying to put students together that are compatible and will learn from each other.”

Mancall added that in determining freshman roommates, the deans attempt to make “every entryway a microcosm of the College.” This policy helps to maintain diversity within each entryway and highlights one of the major problems with the roommate self-selection taking place at colleges around the country—the potential for self-segregation.

As students, we learn ways of thinking from our peers that have differing economic, religious and cultural backgrounds and differing sexual orientations. But as we see at Harvard, athletes often block with athletes and single-race blocking groups are common. Once students can pick their own roommates, it seems inevitable that the majority will chose to live with students of a similar background.

The selection of first-year rooming groups is one of the few pedagogical tools that the University wields outside of the classroom. Schools like the University of Tennessee and Ball State University should not give up this tool by allowing their students to self-segregate even before they arrive on campus.

Learning must take place in the dorm room as well as in the classroom, and Harvard should continue to create a diverse rooming environment for all first-years. Students should start learning the moment they step through the door.

Judd B. Kessler ’04 is an economics concentrator in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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