Moving away to college is full of excitement and stress as incoming students consider whether they’ll like their new school, their major and, most of all, their roommate. Before the emergence of some new technologies, many schools left these pairings to chance — either matching students randomly or manually based on simple questionnaires about their majors or bedtimes.
With this in mind, it is understandable that students may have some trepidation over who they’ll be living with for the next nine months. Those lucky enough to already know who they want to room with used to be the only ones who got to control their fate, but not anymore.
As the student experience has come into focus, many operators have adopted roommate matching software that can make the process more convenient for both the operator and the students being matched. Artificial intelligence can provide an additional level of control to both parties, as the software not only suggests what types of questions and descriptions to include, but it can also highlight potential matches. The only question then is who sees those matches, the students or the operators?
“Since 2020, there has been a growing desire within our industry to enhance the roommate matching process,” says Rob Castellucci, co-founder and president of RoomSync, a roommate matching and self-selection software. “During this time, RoomSync has experienced a threefold increase in size, pushing us to evolve our service.”
The biggest evolution for RoomSync involved creating a scalable self-selection tool to give many students what they ultimately want: control over who they live with.
“The best way to ensure a successful online matching process is to provide an option for residents to self-select,” Castellucci continues. “Many residents have had negative experiences with assigned roommates in the past and appreciate being given the option to choose their own. By taking ownership over the roommate matching process, residents have the added benefit of learning to grow as adults and take responsibility for their living situation.”
Though they may technically be adults at 18, college students still need some guidance — even when they think they know exactly what type of person they want to live with. That’s why RoomSync asks the typical lifestyle questions, such as bedtime, academic goals, preferred noise level, and shared hobbies and interests. Social media is also integrated into the self-selection process to give students a deeper, more well-rounded look at their potential matches.
The platform also includes video chat, accommodates multiple languages, ensures ADA compliance and supports personal pronouns.
“Residents now have the freedom to express themselves through these customizations, as well as through the addition of personal pronoun options to matching profiles,” Castellucci says. “By prompting residents to provide key interests and personality traits that reflect their self-description, the AI Profile Assistant utilizes the advanced GPT-4 model to generate personalized suggestions for residents to use in their profiles, thus alleviating a common obstacle in the roommate matching experience.”
Operators have taken note of what intelligent technology can do for the roommate matching process, allowing them to offer a more streamlined, convenient and, most importantly, successful program to students.
“Our roommate matching program has evolved from a very manual process done on-site to a much more automated and efficient process through roommate matching software,” says Jenn Cassidy, senior vice president of student housing operations at Cardinal Group, which uses RoomSync. “Instead of our team matching residents by their roommate matching questionnaire, residents now receive access to an app allowing them to choose their roommates independently.”
Cassidy notes that while the software doesn’t track complaints about roommates, she knows it has a better success rate than previous strategies.
“We do know that the percentage of roommate conflicts has declined considerably across our portfolios utilizing roommate matching software,” she adds.
Whether a roommate match is a success or failure is still largely determined by the students who volunteer to room together. This means operators must make sure incoming residents take the process seriously.
“Housing teams can further encourage a positive and successful experience by providing tips on how to communicate and be genuine, along with promoting the benefits of roommate self-selection during the leasing process,” Castellucci suggests.
There are many benefits that can be touted, Castellucci believes, aside from having the ability to pick one’s roommate. Browsing the profiles of other potential matches allows students to get to “know” other residents before they move into the community, even if they’re not chosen as roommates. The potential to forge connections and create a friend group before ever setting foot on campus is a benefit that can be touted by student housing providers.
Naturally, this period before move-in is also valuable once a roommate is established, Cassidy notes.
“By giving students the flexibility to choose their own match, they are able to have more time to connect with their roommates in advance,” she says. “They can collaborate on items they are bringing, and get to know each other before they live together.”
Allowing students to self-select their roommates has its benefits, but it isn’t the only way. Some operators that employ intelligent technology to ease the roommate matching process keep the procedure in-house.
“Historically, the on-site teams held the burden of manually completing the process,” says Heather Sizemore, senior vice president of operations at RPM Living. “It was an opportunity to provide a great deal of flexibility in changes right up until move-in day, while also providing a high-touch customer service experience. Now, we use the intelligence of the technology to roommate match residents based on a ranking of preference priority that we set as a company.”
RPM Living incorporates its roommate matching questionnaire into the lease application to make the process even more convenient for itself and its students.
“This way we aren’t left to track down the data after a lease has been signed,” Sizemore says. “Historically, one of the biggest challenges was missing or incomplete preferences, which we’ve now eliminated by changing how and when we collect it.”
Like RoomSync, RPM has also revamped its roommate matching questions. It has eliminated those it deemed “frivolous,” while focusing on the ones that impact the roommate experience. Additionally, RPM simplified the answer choices in its questionnaire, and looked for ways to reduce the amount of subjectivity in any given response.
“For our customers, it’s important to explain the why,” Sizemore says. “They should feel comfortable knowing the answers provided are for internal use only, and honesty in completing the questionnaire is critical for the process to work as best as possible. We encourage residents to fill out the form privately, and have found that including an electronic submission as part of the application process has helped tremendously in that regard.”
As with all tools, Sizemore believes operators must consider the level of service and efficiency when choosing a roommate matching platform to, well, match with.
“It’s important to know how much manual work will be created — or saved — by implementing the solution,” she says. “This includes everything from capturing and storing the data, assigning roommates and apartment units, and notifications to renewals and new residents.”
Sizemore thinks software demos are great, but believes the real value comes from references that have used the program for at least one full leasing cycle.
“Talking to other operators to better understand how the system functions in reality is very important,” she adds.
Equally as important is keeping your tech support players in the loop before any final decision is made.
“Demo multiple products, and once you’ve found a potential solution your operations team is excited about, bring your IT/software support team into the conversation,” Sizemore continues. “Let them vet how well the product will work with your existing technology stack.”
No matter what roommate matching software provider is chosen, Castellucci believes operators must have an appreciation for balance. In this case, a balance must be achieved between relying on artificial intelligence and good, old human intuition.
“It’s important to strike a balance between the automation provided by AI and the human touch in the roommate matching process,” he says. “Including residents in the process promotes personal growth and responsibility — removing them entirely could strip them of their rightful agency. When employed with caution and creativity, AI is a unique instrument that can offer insights and support residents through their college living experience.”
This article was originally published in the May/June issue of Student Housing Business magazine.