Campus housing is a setting where the abstract institutional goal of diverse interactions becomes a concrete reality as students from majority identities - often for the first time - navigate living with and near individuals who differ from themselves in meaningful ways such as by race, religion, politics, country of origin, sexual orientation, gender identity, and socioeconomic status. Roommates represent a key point of interaction given the shared space and time intensity of the relationship.
Previous research has demonstrated that White students assigned a different-race roommate had more diverse interactions, on average (Camargo, Stinebrickner, & Stinebrickner, 2010; Gaither & Sommers, 2013; Mark & Harris, 2012). This perspective on diverse interactions has led multiple institutions to prevent incoming students from choosing their roommate in hope of increasing diverse interactions among their student body (Bauer-Wolf, 2018; Baumann, 2016).
It is crucial to assess the efficacy of restricting roommate choice on its stated goal of promoting diverse interactions among students, while determining if the policy change has negative externalities on minoritized students.
While housing policies vary, many bachelor's degree-granting institutions require living on campus for the first year to provide students more convenient access to campus programming and support services designed for their success. By negotiating this new social environment, students' residence hall experiences represent a prime way to foster learning and development regarding diversity. However, research indicates that microaggressions are common in social spaces like residence halls, and these interactions often prove deleterious for racial and ethnic minority students (Solórzano, Allen, & Carroll, 2002; Solórzano, Ceja, & Yosso, 2000; Yosso, Smith, Ceja & Solórzano, 2009). Due to the competing tensions of promoting diverse interactions and the harmful effects of negative interactions between students on important outcomes, it is crucial to assess the efficacy of restricting roommate choice on its stated goal of promoting diverse interactions among students, while determining if the policy change has negative externalities on minoritized students.
Using data collected from NSSE and a housing-focused supplemental questionnaire, we examined how the method of roommate assignment influenced interactional diversity and perceptions of the campus environment. Our sample included 14,401 first-year students attending 76 institutions who reported that they lived on campus with at least one roommate. We measured interactional diversity using the NSSE Engagement Indicator "Discussions with Diverse Others" and we measured perceptions of the campus environment through the Engagement Indicators "Supportive Environment" and "Quality of Interactions." The key independent variable was the method of roommate assignment, which we collapsed into two categories: matched by the institution and not matched by the institution. We also focused on race, ethnicity, and national origin to examine if the relationships varied by these characteristics. Our analyses held constant a variety of important variables like institution type, sex, and parental education.
About a third of respondents chose their own roommates, but this percentage differed by race (Figure 1). Two in five White students chose their roommates, while only about one in four Asian, Black, and Latinx did so. International students were the least likely to choose their own roommates.
We found no significant association between the method of roommate assignment and Discussions with Diverse Others after holding other factors constant. Furthermore, this relationship did not vary by race/ethnicity/national origin. There was a very small (trivial) association between the method of roommate assignment and perceiving a Supportive Environment, but - importantly - this relationship varied across racial/ethnic/national origin groups. Black and multiracial students perceived a more supportive environment when they chose their roommates. Similarly, while roommate matching was not associated with Quality of Interactions, this relationship also varied by race/ethnicity/national origin. Asian and Black students rated their interactions better when they chose their roommates.
We conclude that preventing students from choosing their own roommates may not be an effective method of increasing interactional diversity, and can actually have negative consequences for historically marginalized students of color. These findings lead to three implications for practice:
- Institutions are encouraged to allow students to choose their own roommates, and especially to find ways to promote and facilitate this opportunity for students of color.
- Institutions are encouraged to develop and enhance programs for students of color to help them make social connections early and discover (and create) safe spaces within the residence halls and on campus in general.
- When considering policy changes, be aware of and take precautions against unintended consequences for students of color.
This paper is published in the Journal of Higher Education:https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00221546.2019.1689483
An open-access version of the manuscript is available at: go.iu.edu/2haa