It’s getting to be that time of year when students across the nation head off to college. Incoming freshman are eager to meet their new roommates. Will they be best friends or make each other miserable?

Meeting Roommates Online

Online social networks like Facebook are changing the way that roommates get to know each another. Facebook is a free web site that lets members post photos, videos and other information on their own web page. Weeks before heading off to campus, students can get to know a new roommate by looking up their Facebook profile and communicating online.

The Upside to Facebook

Chatting with each other online helps new students feel more comfortable about leaving home for dorm life. They find out who lives near them, who’s taking the same classes, and who knows their way around campus. Current students give freshmen the inside scoop on the best classes to take and the professors to avoid. Roommates coordinate bedspread colors and decide who’s bringing the mini-fridge.

There’s a Downside, Too

Sometimes though, meeting a roommate on Facebook is not very reassuring. Parents especially get concerned when they see photos posted of the roommate drinking and partying. Colleges report that even before students meet in person, many parents request a roommate change because they don’t like the roommate’s Facebook profile. Some request a change because they are uncomfortable with the roommate’s race, religion or sexual orientation.

School Policies against Discrimination

Many schools, however, have a policy against switching roommates at the start of a semester. At the University of Nebraska for example, no room changes are made during the first three to four weeks of school while everyone is getting settled. More importantly, most schools have an anti-discrimination policy that prevents them from making roommate assignments or changes on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability, age and sexual orientation.

Diversity is a Goal

School administrators say that getting to know new people from different backgrounds, lifestyles or parts of the world is an important and exciting part of the whole college experience. Sharing a 10 by 15 foot living space with someone new for nine months teaches students how to resolve conflicts and improves communication skills. But refusing to switch roommates on the basis of race or ethnic background isn’t just good educational policy, it’s the law.

Laws against Discrimination

Several federal laws prohibit discrimination in colleges and universities that receive federal funding from the US Department of Education

State and local anti-discrimination or anti-bullying laws might also apply to protect against discrimination on the basis of sexual identity or gender orientation. Schools that violate these laws risk lawsuits and the loss of funding.

Next: Roommates and discriminatory assignments

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