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Services link college roommates, divide officials

Shantel Silva, 17, of Peabody, met a potential college roommate online but decided she would rather be friends.

Essdras M Suarez/ Globe Staff

Shantel Silva, 17, of Peabody, met a potential college roommate online but decided she would rather be friends.

When Shantel Silva got into Villanova University, she did what incoming freshmen do these days. She tweeted. She ordered a Villanova sweatshirt. And, in hopes of finding the ideal roommate, she posted a bio on RoomSurf.com — one of several matching services that are unleashing all the advantages and angst of online dating on the dorm set.

“I said that I’m outdoorsy,” said Silva, a 2014 Peabody Veterans Memorial High graduate. “And I promised that my room wouldn’t be too messy.”

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The site’s algorithm spit out a compatibility-ranked list of potential matches. Some were duds — one girl planned to display her shoe collection — but Silva liked one student from Pennsylvania. After sharing photos of prom dresses and boyfriends, the other girl popped the question: Want to be roomies?

But Silva had met someone else. “I said I still wanted to be friends,” Silva recalled. “But we never talked again.”

For decades, colleges simply matched up incoming freshmen as roommates, and if those students spoke to each other before meeting in their tiny shared room, it was pretty much to decide who should bring the fridge.

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Some schools, such as Amherst, Bates, and Harvard, still do roommate pairings. But many others, including Boston College, Boston University, Northeastern University and UMass Amherst, allow incoming freshmen to choose their roommates, even if some administrators have reservations about the practice.

“College is all about learning new things, taking yourself out of your comfort zone,” said Marc Robillard, the executive director for auxiliary services at Boston University, where four out of 10 incoming BU freshmen made roommate requests this year. “But we’re working in two worlds. An educational world, where this is a chance to make an impact, and a consumer world, where if it’s going to make them happy, you do it.”

‘They see a picture on Facebook and all of a sudden they can’t live with this person.’

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A 2012 poll by the Association of College and University Housing Officers — International found that 32 out of 45 universities surveyed allowed first-year students to request roommates. The organization is planning a larger survey this fall.

At this point, so many incoming freshmen find matches online that what might be called a “signing season” has developed. It’s a spring/summer networking frenzy of 18-year-olds trying to close roommate deals before their college’s housing-assignment deadlines.

The intense, platonic flirting – which sometimes fizzles — is leading to a type of uncomfortable situation unknown just a decade ago, said Lily Herman, an editor of Her Campus , a website aimed at college women, and a rising junior at Wesleyan University.

“You can show up on campus already having people on the quad you’re trying to avoid,” Herman said.

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In the old days — the early 2000s, that is — roommates did not generally know much about each other ahead of time. Not every match was made in heaven, but expectations were lower.

Social media changed all that, said Robert Castellucci, president of RoomSync, an app that surveys users about their major, neatness, bedtimes, and likelihood of having visitors. The site also includes an “about me” space where students can describe themselves and include their Twitter and Instagram handles.

“Prior to Facebook, you’d fill out a piece of paper and the housing administrator would match you,” Castellucci said. “But once Facebook came to be, instead of giving the roommate a call, you’d check them out on Facebook, so now, all of a sudden, you get an idea of who they are, and you call the housing office and say, ‘I want a new roommate.’”

Considering that many kids get social media accounts when they’re 13, or younger, the class of 2018 has been warned for years about posting risqué pictures or unsavory sentiments that might someday turn off college admissions officers or future employers.

Now there’s a new group of judges: their soon-to-be college peers. And they’re known to be judgmental. In Brookline, Christophe Hiltebrandt-McIntosh realized that his Facebook page — which he had basically ignored since freshman year in high school — might make him look like “an alien with no friends.”

So before any future classmates from the University of California Davis could check him out, he sent Facebook friend requests to real-world pals. “A couple of them were like, ‘What the hell is this?’ ” he said. “But when I explained, they understood.”

That type of scenario has some concerned. They fear that for all its popularity, leaving roommate selection to students puts social pressure on kids before college begins and could marginalize students who are less socially adept, lack lively online personalities, or are in some other way “different.”

“You create this strange dynamic of stratification,” said sociologist Dalton Conley, a professor at New York University. There is “an in-group and an out-group — the remainders.”

Conley, who was among those who successfully advocated for NYU to stop allowing freshmen to select their roommates, feared that kids who were socially “pre-connected” could “segregate” themselves, and leave others out of the group.

NYU changed its policy in the fall of 2013, “[S]o all incoming NYU freshmen could begin their college education on the same playing field,” Philip Lentz, the school’s director of public affairs, wrote in an e-mail. “This policy reflects NYU’s value that students should network across geographic differences.”

RELATED: ‘Snowplow parents’ overly involved in college students’ lives

At Harvard, differences between roommates are similarly encouraged. “Meeting other students from different backgrounds, and thereby being deeply exposed to different ways of life and thought, is one of the most important aspects of a Harvard College education,” said Jeff Neal, director of university communications, in an e-mail. “[T]he College deliberately matches incoming first-year students with peers from different backgrounds, taking care, of course, to also promote basic personal compatibility.”

At UMass, incoming freshman can be matched by the school or choose their own roommates, a route taken by more than 40 percent.

Dawn Bond, director of student services at UMass Amherst, does not know whether the process leads to greater happiness, but she advises students who are worried about making the choice themselves to let the school do it for them.

Inevitably, she said, some students (and parents) go online to check out an assigned roommate, make assumptions, and then call seeking a room change. “They see a picture on Facebook and all of a sudden they can’t live with this person,” she said.

Meanwhile, with many colleges starting in about one month, Carolyn Margulies, a rising Tufts freshman from Florida, is getting ready to meet — in person — a roommate she knows mainly from Facebook.

But she’s not expecting any surprises, because both of them understand the importance of honesty. “With online dating, you can get away with pretending to love puppies because after you meet the person you don’t have to go on a second date,” she said.

“But with a roommate, you’re going to be living with them for the entire first year.”

Related:

‘Snowplow parents’ overly involved in college students’ lives

Parents get competitive on college

College orientations for parents help ease separation pains

Summer fun takes a back seat to college resume-building

A student’s take on learning the true cost of college

Beth Teitell can be reached at Beth.Teitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @BethTeitell.
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