Testing Intergroup Contact Theory Through a Natural Experiment of Randomized College Roommate Assignments in the United States

How do we bridge social gaps between groups?

Attending college provides young adults a unique opportunity to be submerged in a more diverse environment. Many schools, with the goal of increasing intergroup contact, adopt housing policies that randomly assign first-year students to roommates.

However, it is unclear whether random roommate assignment policies increase cross-race contact. Moreover, it is unclear whether this contact improves racial attitudes or behaviors, or how these effects may differ for racial majority and minority students.

In this article, co-authored by Sarah E. Gaither, a Cook Center Faculty Affiliate, a random roommate assignment policy is instituted to directly test roommate relationship, attitudinal, and behavioral changes based on roommate race.

Key Findings

  • The random assignment policy increased the likelihood that students had a cross-race roommate because without the policy, students tended to self-segregate by race.
  • Selecting or being randomly assigned a cross-race roommate was associated with having more racial outgroup friends and demonstrating positive social behavior during a novel cross-race interaction.
  • A randomized roommate assignment policy may be a promising avenue for greater cross-race contact and friendships among college students.