Women Bring Science To College Roommate Matching

By Ellen Jean Hirst
Chicago Tribune.

Two Chicago-area women are hoping to do for roommates what online dating has done for some happy couples.

For the past four years, Highland Park psychologist Kim Rubenstein, 42, and Skokie businesswoman Andrea Yusim Meltzer, 56, have been working on an algorithm and an online service that helps college students find highly compatible roommates.

Their startup, Compatibility, looks at 39 facets of a students’ personalities, everything from their religious and political views to their perceptions of their creativity and intelligence.

The premise: Universities don’t probe enough when it comes to matching student roommates, which could mean bad relationships that affect academic performance and could drive students to leave school.

The American College Health Association recently reported that 5.6 percent of undergraduates said roommate problems hampered their academic performance at school. And in a UCLA study of about 16,500 students nationwide, 10 percent said they struggled to get along with their roommates.

Most universities today offer to help students find roommates based on short surveys: Do you like noise while you study? Are you a morning or a night person? How do you feel about having guests overnight in the room?

“If you’re going to go out there and you’re going to attract students, you cannot ask them to live with someone based on six to 10 questions,” Rubenstein said.

On Compatibility’s website, students can create a profile with a picture and a few “fun facts to share.” Next, students take a roughly 100-question survey. Potential matches are available immediately.

Sensitive to potential privacy concerns, Rubenstein said only students see answers to survey questions. Students can reach out to matches through messages and decide from there if they want to room together. Rubenstein said data isn’t sold or used for experimentation as a dating website recently said it did.

“A student takes this assessment, they get identified in the technology. No single person can go back in and say , ‘This is how Joanna responded, this is what she had to say,'” Rubenstein said.

Administrators, however, can access aggregate data to show, for example, the number of students who are the first in their family to attend college.

The idea for Compatibility was sparked during a 2010 dinner conversation with friends about nightmare roommates. Meltzer and Rubenstein turned to Versta Research in Evanston to conduct a national study of 632 college roommate pairs.

Compatibility’s psychosocial assessment puts the most weight on qualities that are more intrinsic to a student’s identity, such as self-esteem and family ties, when matching roommates.

Although study and sleeping habits matter, they don’t matter as much.

“What would come back between roommates … was, here are the things that matter, here are the things that didn’t,” Rubenstein said. “And we were able to work together to write a matching algorithm.”

Compatibility has one college client and two private student housing operators and is in talks with several more.

A software license is typically priced from $2,500 to $20,000 per year, depending on the size of a school, and averages about $5 to $7 per student in added fees.

The schools can also elect to have students who want to take the survey pay for it, which is about $10 per student.

The University of New Haven bought into the algorithm concept early on and served as both a laboratory and the company’s first paying customer in 2011.

“I liked where they were heading,” said University of New Haven’s Associate Dean of Residential Life and Housing Nicole McGrath.

“When you’re involved with a company in their starting phases, you know you get to shape and assist the evolution of the product. … There’s a lot of learning back and forth. I liked that they were willing to take our student feedback.”

Other universities aren’t convinced there’s a need for a more sophisticated system.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign uses a seven-question lifestyle survey to match roommates.

Incoming students at Northwestern University create a profile on Facebook to get the roommate matching conversation going.

Northwestern’s Paul Riel, executive director of residential services, says the school compares data to see if there is a difference between student roommates selected randomly and those paired by algorithms.

“Anecdotally, I haven’t seen much of a difference,” Riel said. “It does give people a better shot at it, but it really becomes the work of the people living together.”

Kirsten Ruby, associate director of housing for communications and marketing at U. of I., said screenings are valuable, but even students from different backgrounds can make it work.

“This is a time of growth,” Ruby said, “and learning to get along with someone who isn’t exactly like you is part of that. … Learning how to set realistic goals for one another and engage in conflict resolutions is valuable.”

Rubenstein and Meltzer put up more than $400,000 of their own money, as well as money from friends and family, to get the company going.

The women recently secured a contract with Chicago-based Scion Group, which has private student housing on 17 campuses across the country. In Illinois, Scion has a large community near the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign that accommodates 1,600 students and a smaller one in Normal at Illinois State University.

Eric Bronstein, Scion’s executive vice president, said the company will make the roommate matching assessment available this fall for students looking to live at its facilities next school year.

“We were really intrigued with the algorithm and very in-depth psychological analysis Compatibility was doing,” Bronstein said, “which was far, far beyond the type of roommate matching we had been previously offering.”

To build the company, the founders are calling universities nationwide to make their pitch that their algorithm is worth the investment.

While social media profiles show superficial and skewed traits about a person, science doesn’t lie, Meltzer said.

“This is what makes relationships work,” she said.

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