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Students of color who choose their roommate perceive a more positive campus environment

Study from IU School of Education researchers examines whether barring roommate choice is helpful to first-year students

For Immediate Release Jan 27, 2020
Students talk in a residence hall room
A new IU School of Education study finds students of color may perceive a more positive college environment when they choose a roommate.Photo by Liz Kaye, Indiana University

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – A new study from Indiana University has demonstrated that first-year students of color perceive a more positive campus environment when they choose their roommate, as opposed to being matched with a roommate by the institution.

The study is among the first to examine the recent trend of colleges and universities preventing incoming students from choosing their roommates. The policy changes are designed to promote diverse interactions among their student body. The new study, published in The Journal of Higher Education, focuses on how roommate choice influences diverse interactions and perceptions of the campus environment.

A review of data collected from nearly 15,000 first-year students attending 76 institutions who responded to the National Survey of Student Engagement found that restricting roommate choice is not an effective means to promote interactions between students with different backgrounds. There was no difference in the frequency of discussions with diverse others between those who chose a roommate and those who were assigned a roommate by the institution.

The study also revealed that Asian, black and multiracial students who chose their roommate(s) perceived a more positive campus environment than their same-race peers who were assigned a roommate by their institution. This effect was not observed for white or Latino students.

What’s more, the data demonstrated that students of color were substantially less likely to choose their roommate(s) than were white students, indicating that helping incoming students find a suitable roommate may be a pathway to improving the campus environment and, ultimately, degree completion for underrepresented students.

Authors of the study are Kevin Fosnacht and Robert M. Gonyea, research scientists at the Center for Postsecondary Research at the IU School of Education Bloomington, and Polly Graham, a doctoral student at Indiana University.

“Roommates play a critical role in the college experience due to closeness and time intensity of the relationship,” Fosnacht said. “Understanding how this impactful relationship influences college outcomes is essential to understanding how college influences students.

“Our results show that students are in the best position to decide the suitability of a roommate, particularly if the student is from a minority group.”

“Policies aimed at promoting diverse interactions should be thoughtfully considered from the perspectives of all students,” Gonyea said. “Sometimes well-meaning policies have the potential for unintended consequences.”

The authors said they hope the results help inform residence life policies around roommates and believe it provides a cautionary tale about the importance of assessing policy changes, particularly for minority groups, before the policies are fully implemented.

This research was funded via the ACUHO-I Sponsored Research initiative, which is supported by the ACUHO-I Research and Educational Foundation.

“As campuses continue to diversify their student populations, ongoing research is critical to understanding how our campus housing practices must evolve to best serve residential students,” said Mary DeNiro, CEO of the Association of College and University Housing Officers-International. “The findings of this study will provide campus professionals with opportunities to enhance their effectiveness on key metrics for student success. The ACUHO-I Sponsored Research initiative is foundational to ACUHO-I’s strategic plan, which is committed to producing ongoing research crucial to the campus housing profession.”

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