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Interracial Roommates in Colleges

by Elizabeth Stearns - August 31, 2009

This commentary reviews the evidence regarding the impact of interracial roommates on friendship diversity in colleges. It argues that policies designed to maximize interracial roommate assignment may foster better interracial relations on their campuses and perhaps throughout their studentsí lifetimes.

Many students enter college today with very little prior interracial contact. Although the racial and ethnic diversity of the elementary and secondary school populations is increasing, geographical segregation between neighborhoods and the decline of school desegregation efforts have largely limited the amount of exposure that children of various racial groups have to one another. Limited exposure is especially true for White students, who live the most racially segregated lives prior to beginning college. Colleges may provide the first and best opportunity for many young adults to have interracial interactions in a variety of settings—academic, residential, and social. Through judicious planning and use of policies that maximize interracial roommate assignment, colleges may make the most of that opportunity to foster better interracial relations on their campuses and perhaps throughout their students’ lifetimes.

Universities have successfully argued that racially and ethnically diverse student enrollments are necessary to produce graduates who can lead a diverse democracy. But simply attending diverse institutions is not enough to ensure that meaningful interracial contact occurs or to promote positive interracial outcomes. Various features of college environments, including the centrality of some types of extracurricular activities and more intangible aspects of “climate,” may constrain the extent to which students have meaningful interracial contacts during college.

One good indicator of the extent of meaningful interracial contact is the presence (or absence) of interracial friendships. Friendships formed in college may persist for years afterward, providing emotional support, as well as more instrumental benefits such as professional connections and references. Thus, interracial friendships in college could have a long-lasting impact on the extent of racial segregation among the educated classes.  

Multiple changes occur during the transition to college, making this time period particularly valuable for the study of interracial friendship formation. Students make many new friendships with other students during their first year of college, especially at residential colleges. Furthermore, many of these first-year students live in college-sponsored housing with college-assigned roommates, providing a type of natural experiment about the effects of geographic proximity on interracial friendship formation and racial relations that would be impossible in other settings.

Interracial Friendships

In general, people form friendships with those who are similar to them in some important way, such as having the same gender, race, or socioeconomic status, or with those with whom they have contact in a shared social situation, such as being enrolled in the same classes. But a long-standing body of research in social psychology has indicated that not all contact is created equal. In fact, Gordon Allport’s contact theory identifies three particular conditions that are most likely to result in positive relations such as friendships between members of two groups. First, group members must have equal status. Second, group members must work collaboratively toward a goal that cannot be achieved independently. Third, authority figures should explicitly support inter-group mixing.  

Administrative policies that randomly match first-year students as roommates largely meet these conditions. Although some status distinctions remain, freshman roommates have largely equal status in many respects, including their longevity and knowledge of the university. Students must learn to cooperate with one another in order to survive the experience of living with one another: especially among elite universities, their freshman-year living arrangements may be the first time that they have had to share living space with another person. In addition, these policies suggest that administrators value interracial interaction, thus meeting another of the conditions of Allport’s contact theory.

Some of my recent research findings support the notion that contact under the conditions of Allport’s theory leads to more positive interracial outcomes. In a recently published study, Claudia Buchmann, Kara Bonneau, and I (Stearns, Buchmann, & Bonneau, 2009) examined the racial composition of the friendship networks of first-year students at a selective university. We found that students who have a roommate of a different race have more interracial friendships than those students with a same-race roommate, even controlling for the racial composition of their friendship networks prior to beginning college. In fact, we found that the residential setting had a greater impact on the racial composition of friendship networks than did other settings, including both classroom and extracurricular activities.

More recent research takes our findings one step further. Noah Mark and Daniel R. Harris (2008) find that the effects of having a different-race roommate are race-specific, such that White students with Asian-American roommates have more Asian-American friends than White students without Asian-American roommates. With respect to friends of other racial groups, the networks of White students with and without Asian-American roommates are similar.

There are several mechanisms through which interracial roommate pairings may make a difference in people’s friendship patterns. One is derived directly from contact theory and posits that exposure to roommates of other races may lead to a reduction in prejudice, thereby reducing an attitudinal barrier to making interracial friendships. Researchers have found results consistent with this possibility (Van Laar, Levin, Sinclair, & Sidanius, 2005). Another mechanism is through reduction in a more structural barrier to making interracial friendships, in that having a roommate of another race may give a student access to possible friends of a different race that they may not have previously had. In effect, a roommate of a different race may act as a “bridge” between their roommates and their own same-race friends. Mark and Harris’s paper, which indicates a race-specific effect of having a roommate of another race, supports this second contention.

Nonetheless, interracial roommate pairings may offer challenges both to the students involved and to college administrators seeking to use these pairings to advance interracial contact and understanding. Students who have had limited interactions with members of other racial groups may lack cross-cultural communication skills, or harbor and express attitudes that are offensive to members of other racial groups. Some may be surprised to find that a “post-racial” ideology does not fit everyone else’s lived experience, or to find that identifying as “Irish-American,” for example, is not the equivalent of identifying as “African-American.” Other roommate relationships may disrupt over more mundane issues, such as music preference, that can nonetheless take on racial overtones. Perhaps for these reasons, as found by Towles-Schwen and Fazio (2006), interracial roommate pairings are more likely to break up in the first weeks of the semester than are pairings of roommates of the same race, especially when there are other housing options available to students. Even though they are more likely to disrupt, however, the vast majority (over 80%) of interracial roommate pairings do not do so.

In sum, colleges and universities with racially diverse student populations can support the formation of interracial friendships, and thereby possibly improve the quality of their racial climates, by maximizing the number of interracial roommate pairings they have. One caveat comes from concerns over whether these policies might hinder racial or ethnic minority students’ ability to form friendship networks with like others, friendship networks that may benefit them academically or socially. Other campus organizations, such as racially and ethnically oriented student organizations, may provide a forum for intraracial interaction, however, and thus mitigate this concern.  

College students spend a great deal of their time in their residence halls, much more than they typically spend in class with one another. Their residential placement is more amenable to policy intervention and their geographic proximity to one another is probably the greatest it will be during their lifetimes. As Gurin, Day, Hurtado, and Gurin (2002) point out, “educators must intentionally structure opportunities for students to leave the comfort of their homogeneous peer group and build relationships across racially/ethnically diverse student communities on campus” (p. 362). Taking race into consideration when assigning roommates is one way to structure these opportunities and help students build interracial relationships.


Gurin, P., Dey, E.L., Hurtado, S., & Gurin, G. (2002). Diversity and higher education: Theory and impact on educational outcomes. Harvard Educational Review, 72, 330-366.

Noah, M., & Harris, D. (2008). Roommate’s race and the racial composition of white college students’ ego networks. Working paper. University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Stearns, E., Buchmann, C., & Bonneau, K. (2009). Interracial friendships in the transition to college: Do birds of a feather still flock together once they leave the nest? Sociology of Education, 82, 173-195.

Towles-Schwen, T., & Fazio, R.H. (2006). Automatically activated racial attitudes as predictors of the success of interracial roommate relationships. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 42(5), 698-705.  

Van Laar, C., Levin, S., Sinclair, S., & Sidanius, J. (2005). The effect of university roommate contact on ethnic attitudes and behavior. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 41, 329-345.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 31, 2009
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15761, Date Accessed: 5/28/2022 6:40:51 AM

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