Students the land over are packing up their things and heading away to college. And seeing those heavy-laden station wagons on the interstate always makes me wonder: taking eighteen-year-olds, removing them from family and friends and forcing them to live with a complete stranger in a tiny room--who still thinks that's a good idea?
Most shared-room situations don't end in tragedy, as the pairing of Tyler Clementi and Dharun Ravi at Rutgers did last fall. Some people (and I'm one of them) make fast and lifelong friends with their randomly-assigned roommates. But even those people who don't have serious problems with their freshman-year roommates can still find the ordinary stressors attendant upon going away to college compounded by the stress of trying to figure out how to live with another person.
And I think it's bizarre how sanguine we adults are about this process, and indeed how little thought we give to it. We tend to talk about rooming with strangers as useful and character-building, a way of learning to negotiate adult responsibilities. And that's certainly true (and it's also true that most young people will live with roommates or housemates well into their twenties). But I have plenty of students whose first weeks of college are made infinitely more complicated, and sometimes acutely traumatic, as a result of living in close quarters with someone they don't like, or who doesn't like them, or simply someone who has a radically different schedule or set of habits. Just sharing a room with someone you don't know and don't connect with--when you're already homesick and uncertain and wondering if you'll ever make any friends--can feel profoundly isolating.
Most young people going away to college today have never shared a room with another person. And we can say that this is a sign of class privilege, or that it leads to kids who are spoiled or selfish or maladaptive or whatever, but it's not a sign of being spoiled not to be prepared to do something that you've never had to do before. Once upon a time, the young men who went away to college tended to have gone to boarding school--or they'd lived in barracks in the military or were expecting to live in them after they graduated. Once upon a time, it was common for siblings to sleep two or three to a bedroom. But that's rarely the reality these days.
Don't get me wrong: I think dormitory living is useful for all the reasons other people allege, as is being thrown in with people you haven't elected to live with (and whom you might never elect to live with again). But there are smarter and less smart ways to organize freshman dorms. I'd argue that no freshman should ever be placed in an isolated double. Quads or sextets--two or three doubles with a common living space or some combination of singles and doubles with a common living space--make the most sense to me. That way students aren't stuck, alone, in a room with just one other person.
I'd also like to see us be more attentive to the difficulties of adjusting to dormitory life. Most roommate complaints aren't serious, in the sense that they don't require any intervention, and most such problems will pass. But that doesn't mean that there aren't real emotional and sometimes academic costs.