Online matchmaking, for dorm living

Before Janee Jackson arrived at her dorm room at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga this fall, she already knew she would like her roommates. By browsing student profiles online, Ms. Jackson, who lives in a quad-style dorm with three other women, was able to find roommates who met her specifications: nonsmokers who like to keep their living space tidy. They also share the same Christian faith and enjoy similar activities.

"It can cause a lot less problems than if you were put in a room with someone you don't have things in common with," Jackson says.

For students living in campus residence halls, finding a compatible roommate can be just as important as deciding which professor to take for English 101. That's why a handful of universities around the nation are now offering roommate selection software, allowing students to log on and choose their own roomie.

Traditionally, school housing officials have been responsible for making random assignments, but the hope is that the on-line process will increase the odds of a successful match.

"Our intention is to give students as much control as they want in the roommate-selection process," says Eric Hansen, assistant director for housing and dining services at Oregon State University. Oregon State's version of the software, designed by a team of staff and students, is ready for the 2004-2005 academic year.

The process is often compared to making airline reservations or looking for love online. Each student receives a secure password and screen name for privacy, then they enter personal profiles, answer a series of questions about lifestyle and habits, and indicate what they are looking for in a roommate. From there, they can view profiles of other students the software deems compatible. When someone finds an appealing prospect, the two can communicate with each other via phone or e-mail. No fee is charged for the service.

"Our complaints about [roommate problems] have dropped to zero," says Joni Tyson, assistant director of Residence Life Operations at Emory University in Atlanta, which is in its second year of the program. "We have given [the students] ownership ... it is a really powerful thing for them to take charge of their own destiny."

Tyson also cites the ability to log on from anywhere at any time as a major draw. The system works well for those in the study abroad program who need to secure a room before returning to campus, and allows all students to browse for roommates at their convenience.

Rather than designing its own software, Emory is one of 13 universities that has outsourced the service to WebRoomz, also based in Atlanta, a subsidiary of student housing management firm Place Properties. Other schools currently using the program include the University of Washington, the University of Utah, the University of Kentucky, and Georgia State University.

"The manual process was very paper intensive and costly in labor," says Jessica Harrison, the company's public relations director. "It was frustrating because six weeks after [applying for housing and indicating roommate preferences] you still might not know where you were living."

While Laurie Rozakis, author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to College Survival," agrees Web-based roommate selection is empowering for students, she stresses that the system is not foolproof.

"It is a nice thing for kids to have a say in their lives, but there will still be the same issues," she says, referring to things like sharing personal belongings, overnight guests, and study habits.

Furthermore, even with Web-based selection, some parents - nervous about the process - feel compelled to answer roommate questionnaires on behalf of their children.

"Sometimes parents fill them out, and they don't have a clue what their kids are about," Dr. Rozakis says. She believes parents answer the questions in terms of the type of roommate they want their son or daughter to have, especially if they are looking for a good influence.

This is precisely why the University of Texas at Austin makes sure students are aware that this process does not guarantee perfection. UT Austin students have had the option of using the school's self-designed software for the past three years. However, they can still use the old paper process if they prefer.

"There is no end all, be all," says Doug Garrard, associate director for the division of housing and food services. "But it is another tool for students who want more control."

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