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Peer Effects, Diversity, and College Roommates in the United States

Location: A large, academically strong state university in the United States
Sample: 1,278 undergraduate students
1997 to 2003
Target Group: 
Higher education and universities
Outcome of Interest: 
Policy Issue 

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.

Context of the Evaluation 

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.

Photo: Shutterstock.com

Details of the Intervention 

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.

The university' s housing office provided data on each student' s housing application and dorm placement. Racial/ethnic, socioeconomic and attitudinal data on social policies and future plans were gathered from each student in the Cooperative Institutional Research Program' s entering student survey. A follow-up survey was conducted in 2003 from the 1997 cohort, resulting in a sample of 1,278 white students. This survey collected responses about racial attitudes, behaviors such as time spent with others from a different race, and life goals.

Results and Policy Lessons 

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."

Additionally, students appear to become less supportive of higher taxes for the wealthy when they are assigned roommates from high-income backgrounds, and more likely to volunteer when assigned roommates from low-income backgrounds, implying that attitudinal effects are not limited to racial differences. The pattern of results seems to indicate that roommates do have an effect on attitudes, such as endorsement of affirmative action policies, and intermediate behaviors, such as being comfortable interacting with others. On the other hand, more concrete behaviors such as befriending or socializing with people from another racial group appear to be unchanged by these policies. Taken together, these results suggest that students become more empathetic with the social groups to which their roommates belong, providing evidence against theories which state that deliberate efforts to encourage mixing may actually inflame tensions and exacerbate conflict.

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.