Eight years ago, when Robert Castellucci worked for a housing complex at the University of Florida, his main job was to pair roommates based on a few simple lifestyle questions. But what had once been a straightforward task – matching smokers with smokers, separating early risers from night owls – was getting difficult thanks to social media. "We'd get 30, 40, 50 calls a day asking for a new roommate based on their Facebook profile," he says. "They didn't get the roommates they wanted, and I couldn't get my job done."
So in 2009, Castellucci and three friends launched RoomSync, a Facebook app where students fill out a finely tuned questionnaire. An algorithm suggests possible dormmates, and students themselves get to decide whose dirty underwear they'll be stepping over for the next two semesters.
More than 60 schools now use RoomSync, with promising results. At New Mexico State, 50 percent of students used to ask to switch roommates the school chose for them. But among students using the app, that number dropped to 10 percent, according to Julie Weber, director of housing. RoomSync user GPAs were .25 points higher, at 3.05, and their re-enrollment was up 6.6 percent, to 96 percent.
For decades, universities believed that acclimating to the quirks of a complete stranger was an essential part of college. That's still the case at schools like NYU and Stanford, where the 1,700 incoming freshmen are hand-paired by two upperclassmen. "Education's about putting people in uncomfortable situations so they start to learn about themselves," says NYU housing head Thomas Ellett. "[Programs like RoomSync] are a good customer-service tool, but there's a big difference between customer service and education."
But in the past half-decade, universities have moved to more modern systems – by 2012, about 70 percent allowed incoming freshmen to select roommates, according to one informal survey. Besides RoomSync, there are similar programs like Roomsurf and RoommateFit; some schools have proprietary systems, like Oregon State, which lets incoming freshmen use a school-only social network to choose future bunkmates.
But as all are quick to admit, one reason these programs work so well is that students are less likely to complain when they get to pick their own roommate. "That way, they are more invested in who they have selected," says Weber. "They can't blame us for it."