Peer Effects, Diversity, and College Roommates in the United States
While the societal effects of ethnic and class divisions are well known, much less is known about the impact of policies designed to ameliorate conflict between groups. Much of the recent emphasis on diversity in schools and workplaces in the United States is motivated by the expectation that mixing between members of different groups will break down stereotypes and encourage development of deeper understanding and empathy. On the other hand, it is possible that deliberate efforts to encourage mixing may actually inflame tensions and exacerbate conflict. There is little empirical evidence on the actual impact of affirmative action policies on individual attitudes or relations between racial and ethnic groups.
Universities are a natural place to examine diversity-related outcomes. Students, perhaps for the first time, may live in close quarters with individuals of a different race. The randomization of dorm-style living assignments prevents self-segregation to a certain degree, and the outcomes of such living situations can be informative as to the true effect of mixing policies. The university examined in this study has a strong affirmative action policy, and on average, the African-American students have test scores more than one standard deviation below those of their white counterparts. If affirmative action indeed reinforces stereotypes or causes tension among students, we would expect to see such effects in this population.
This study investigates the consequences of intergroup interactions in a real-world context by examining whether individual attitudes and behaviors change when people of different races are randomly assigned to live together at the start of their first year of college. In this natural experiment, students at a large state university were randomly assigned roommates from the pool of new students through a lottery system.
When the final survey was conducted, white students who had been randomly assigned African-American roommates were more likely to endorse affirmative action policies than those assigned to white roommates. Endorsement of affirmative action was between one-third and one-half of a standard deviation higher among these students. While white students who were randomly assigned minority roommates were more likely to say that they interacted more comfortably with members of minority groups, their reported friendships and socializing did not change. However, they were just as likely to remain close friends with their roommates beyond their freshman year - 14 percent of whites with white roommates and 15 percent of whites with black roommates considered these roommates to be their "best college friend."
Boisjoly, Johanne, Greg Duncan, Michael Kremer, Dan Levy, and Jacque Eccles. 2006. "Empathy or Antipathy? The Impact of Diversity." The American Economic Review 96(5): 1890-1905.