As a new class of freshmen headed off to college this fall, some were putting to the test an online program that allowed them to choose their dorm roommates with the simple point and click of a computer mouse.

The service is provided by WebRoomz, an Atlanta-based company offering the latest in roommate matchmaking capabilities, with a selection process that mirrors the principles used in computer dating services.

“WebRoomz is a great product for students and the university because it allows the students to make their own decisions, while it reduces labor and operating costs for the housing staff,” said Jessica Harrison, WebRoomz spokeswoman.

A school mandates how many and what kind of questions are asked, Harrison said, but students generally can post their profiles detailing personality traits, quirks, work habits, music and food preferences, and what their expectations are in a roommate relationship.

Then they can search for others with similar qualities, and potential matches can eMail each other, set up a meeting, and book their rooms online.

WebRoomz is already in use at several schools, including Emory University in Atlanta, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Bowie State in Maryland, and the University of Utah.

This summer, the University of Washington (UW) became the latest school to sign up for the service. The college plans to play matchmaker to thousands of students applying for university housing during the 2004 school year by offering WebRoomz’s service.

“We want to provide better service to students and put more control into the hands of students in terms of where they live,” said Nancy Hyde, assistant director of Housing and Food Service.

“I think you should be able to pick,” incoming UW freshman Bryan Menzia said Aug. 8 during an orientation at the Seattle campus.

Menzia, who plans to study electrical engineering, said he’s waiting to see if the school grants his request to room with a friend who’s also attending the university.

“You can request to be roomed with somebody, but it doesn’t always mean that’s what you’ll get,” said Menzia, 18.

Others thought roulette-style matchups were just part of going to school.

“Part of college is learning to live with people, whether you get along with them or not. That’s real life,” said Ann Kuykendall, a UW senior majoring in art history. “Theoretically you’ll get people who get along, but I don’t think it’s life or death.”

Even some college housing officials question whether the service will really work. Students’ behaviors change once they get to college, and sometimes the straight-A student will become the next heavy drinker with a steady stream of overnight guests after a few months.

“People get away from home, and they develop new styles and new interests,” said Gary Schwarzmueller, the executive director of the Association of College and University Housing Officers-International.

Also, roommates with the same interests might defeat the purpose of college living, where you’re sometimes forced to live with strangers and meet new people.

“Are you better off with somebody exactly like you?” Schwarzmueller asked.

UW’s Hyde said students currently submit housing applications online, but it’s the university staff that uses the information to find the best match.

Now, instead of using old-fashioned methods like pairing students randomly or just doing it alphabetically, colleges are letting the computers sort it out.

“Students have been raised with the internet, they expect this level of service,” Hyde said.

The service eliminates some of the worries students have about going away to college and being so far away from home.

Kelly Kristal, 18, of Marin County, Calif., said she’ll be attending Emory in the fall and that the program helped her find a roommate from Texas who has similar family values and interests in sports.

“It just worked out perfectly. It’s just nice to actually have a friend before you go there,” she said.

For universities, it’s an end to days of shuffling room assignments.

“There’s a lot of variety that isn’t necessarily taken into consideration under the current system,” Hyde said. “We actually think it will increase our efficiency. We won’t have to have staff involved in every decision students make.”

Hyde said UW plans to test the program in October, with full service set for spring, when an anticipated 8,000 students will register in hopes of snaring one of the university’s approximately 6,700 beds.

The fee-based program will cost UW about $75,000, money that will be taken from the cost of operating the old computer system and put toward the new service, Hyde said.

She said there’ll be no additional costs to students, who can pay for housing by credit card when they apply. The site then provides online account balances and payments from students or parents.

See these related links:

WebRoomz
http://www.webroomz.com/index.html

Association of College and University Housing Officers-International
http://www.acuho.ohio-state.edu

Emory University
http://www.emory.edu

University of Washington
http://www.washington.edu