Heading Off Roommate Nightmares with an App

This summer, sorting out the freshman dorm has theoretically been a lot easier for the housing department at Michigan State University.

For decades, the university, which boasts of one of the largest campus residences in the country, has had to throw together thousands of incoming freshman without upsetting the peace among its 17,000-plus campus-residing students. Yet the days of using a computer database to randomly spit out roommate assignments seem to be on the way out. That’s because MSU, along with the University of Florida, James Madison University, the University of South Florida and others, started employing RoomSync, a Facebook application that promises to help new students avoid freshman-year roommate mismatches.
Here’s how it works. When incoming students elect to download RoomSync, they agree to submit some basic information about their lifestyle preferences — criteria such as how neat they are and whether they are night owls or early risers.
The app also extracts some data from what Facebook users list as their interests and what they elect to “like” using the social networking site. Then RoomSync spits out a list of potential roommates, who then can check out each other’s profiles on Facebook — with some limitations (users can see more than what is public but not as much as a person’s “friend” can see. You can’t pick a roommate based on factors like ethnicity or relationship status).
Incoming freshmen can also identify a key interest — “soccer” or “pre-med,” for example — and filter their roommate searches. Theoretically, they won’t get stuck with that guy who owns all of Debbie Gibson’s albums — unless they want to be.
RoomSync was founded in 2007 by four college students: Robert Castellucci (Florida), Alex Edelsburg (Duke), Michael Hacker (Florida) and Ariel Himmelstern (Emory). The company signed on its first university partner in 2009. After a slow start, its client base has surged from four schools last year to 21, including Temple University, Wichita State University, Emory University and Kent State University.
According to Castellucci, who is now RoomSync’s vp of marketing, as Facebook has grown in popularity, it has forever changed the pre-college roommate experience. Instead of calling or possibly emailing one’s assigned roommate and hoping for the best, Castellucci said that most incoming freshmen immediately look up their soon-to-be roomates on Facebook. And many panic.
“Housing offices now get flooded with calls and requests to change roommates,” Castellucci said. “That’s made this a much easier sell than a few years ago.”
Thus, RoomSync sells its service directly to universities’ student housing divisions (it’s free for students). With 21 schools on board today, the company expects to net out at 45 clients by the end of this year and 100 by the end of 2012.
Besides making the roommate process easier, Castellucci said that he has begun to hear anecdotes and statisical evidence from schools that RoomSync helps lower moving rates, avoid student turnover, and even improve graduation rates.
“Retention is starting to become a benefit,” he said. “It’s not just about roommates.”
Currently, RoomSync doesn’t carry ads. But Castellucci said the company is exploring several other revenue models as its user base grows. To date, 25,000 students have installed the app — a number that should swell as the new semester approaches at MSU and other new partner schools.

Sign up to get the day’s top stories at 6am eastern.