Saying farewell to the single life

Getting along with a college roommate has never been easy–and it has become even harder. To understand why, it’s necessary to know just one fact. Some 90 percent of freshmen now arrive on campus having never shared a bedroom, says Gary Schwarzmueller, executive director of the Association of College and University Housing Officers International. Twenty years ago, by contrast, only about 5 percent of freshmen had known such luxury. On this count, ”new freshmen are the most pampered and privileged ever,” says Idaho State University’s director of housing, Ronald Peterson.

These children of affluence are used to having their own phones, televisions, and even computers, and are unaccustomed to sharing their possessions. Yet when they get to college, they think nothing of using the cosmetics or clothing of roommates without asking permission. ”We’re surprised by the common-sense things we have to tell them,” says Ann Young, director of resident life at Centre College in Danville, Ky. (With our lives getting busier colleges now are offering online degrees)

Brownie battle.Many of these freshmen have never had to master the art of compromise, so disputes that once would have been settled quietly in a dorm room are more likely to escalate into crises. Housing administrators find themselves grappling with spats over trivia, like one roommate eating the other’s last home-baked brownie. ”They seem less prepared to deal with the everyday struggles,” says Linda Franke, director of Housing and Residence Life at Santa Clara University in California. Many are quick to seek parental intervention when they encounter a balky roommate. ”Too often parents try to save their children,” Franke says. She cites several recent incidents of parents calling the housing office–while their sons or daughters could be overheard in the background coaching them–and demanding that a roommate be moved for such offenses as staying up too late or being ”disrespectful” toward their child. ”Not long ago, students would have been embarrassed to get their parents involved,” Franke reports.

To settle conflicts, some campuses such as the University of California-Los Angeles and the University of Pittsburgh have turned to mediation programs, which bring adversaries face to face with each other and an administrator. At Duquesne University, residence hall staff members have begun using a CD-ROM developed by a Carnegie Mellon University researcher to learn how to help students keep their tempers under control. The interactive software presents disputes between roommates over matters like noise and romance. Listeners suggest solutions and learn whether their ideas will soothe or increase hostilities. But the technology can only do so much. Ultimately, students must learn how to cope with each other. ”Listening, talking, and having patience with one another are the keys to surviving the first year away from home,” says Christine Hollow, associate director of residential programs at the University of Dayton.

In an effort to avoid roommate conflicts and enjoy the kind of living situation they left behind, growing numbers of freshmen pay as much as 50 percent extra for a single room. Schools from Cornell University in New York to Texas A&M report that demand for singles is surging. Vanderbilt University recently reconfigured several residence halls to accommodate 45 percent of its freshmen in single rooms.

Isolation.But Vanderbilt is an exception. On many campuses, swollen enrollments have created a space squeeze, and building new dorms or renovating old ones costs too much. Even where singles are available for freshmen, housing experts are concerned about first-year students living by themselves. At the University of Nebraska-Kearney, the price of single rooms has risen 48 percent over the past five years, not to take advantage of demand but as a disincentive for freshmen to choose that option. The strategy has paid off; each time the campus edges the price up, freshman demand levels off. ”We’ve found that putting freshmen in a single room is ill advised; such students disproportionately have troubles adjusting to college,” says Dean Bresciani, director of residential and Greek life.

Not all students who end up in singles have adjustment problems. Although she did not ask to live by herself, Stanford University sophomore Dana Gunders found herself in a single when she arrived on campus as a freshman last year. The 19-year-old Cos Cob, Conn., resident was disappointed ”for about a day.” An extrovert by nature, she quickly turned her corner dormitory room into ”party central,” a place where others in her residence hall enjoy hanging out.

Gunders ended up in a single in part because she had indicated in a questionnaire sent to incoming freshmen that she would be having lots of guests. She wanted to make sure that she didn’t get stuck with a roommate who would be bothered when she had friends over. By giving her a single room, the university avoided any potential squabbles.

But unlike Gunders, freshmen are more likely to find themselves in a double or a triple. Most schools try to match roommates based on their answers to questions about personal behavior such as their sleeping patterns, neatness, and smoking habits. Eastern College in Philadelphia has boiled its survey down to three simple questions: Are you a day or a night person? Is it important for you to keep your room very neat? What do you plan to do with your spare time?

Mismatch.Compatible answers on a survey do not guarantee personal compatibility, however. After the first phone call with his soon-to-be freshman roommate at California’s Santa Clara University, Aaron Weast wondered how they could have been matched up. Weast liked to play tennis; his roommate preferred to sit around. Weast is a bug about neatness; his roommate was always messy. Before long, the 20-year-old junior from West Linn, Ore., was spending only a few hours a day in his room and sleeping elsewhere when hallmates had an empty bed for a night. ”We were just very different people,” says Weast, who eventually moved out.

Some matches are undermined by students who answer the housing survey dishonestly. For example, smokers have sometimes checked the nonsmoking box because, even though they might light up occasionally, they don’t want to live with a smoker. Nonsmokers complaining of smoke on their roommate’s clothes became such a volatile issue at Santa Clara that the housing questionnaire was revised to include a new option: I am a smoker but want to live in a nonsmoking room.

Misguided parental advice on how to fill out a survey can also contribute to mismatches. Santa Clara’s Franke recalls a particularly protracted battle over tidiness. The housing office consulted the original questionnaire and realized that a sloppy student had checked ”neat and clean” for his room preference. When questioned about that, he confessed that his parents had suggested the idea. What he hadn’t learned at home, they felt, he would absorb if placed with a tidy roommate.

Freshmen expecting to find a best friend for life in a new roommate are likely to be disappointed. More often than not, freshman roommates, including those who have had to learn to share a room for the first time, muddle through: a few fights, a few fond memories, and then they go their separate ways.

But some pairings work out. Angie Sanfilippo and Amy Locatelli, recent graduates of Santa Clara, were freshman roommates and remain best friends. Sanfilippo, 21, and Locatelli, 22, both came from large families, where they had to cope with conflicts and learned to overcome the minor ones that arose between them. The housing questionnaire probably helped in placing the two together, but they also credit serendipity. ”We shared so many of the same fears and anxieties in the beginning,” says Sanfilippo, ”we just clicked.’