Campus Life

Mixed-Gender Dorm Rooms

Back when I went to college (while the newly formed Earth was still cooling), the female residences were not only separate buildings, but they were also located in what seemed like the adjacent county. Mapquest or GPS would have been a big help for us to have found our way there for visits or on "date night" (don't you just love those antiquated terms?).

If you're a parent reading this, how would you feel about having your son or daughter living in the same smallish dorm room with a member of the opposite sex? Well, to help you fine-tune your opinions, here's the latest news about coed dorm-room housing:

In a recent Los Angeles Times article, Larry Gordon notes:

They weren't looking to make a political statement or to be pioneers of gender liberation. Each just wanted a familiar, decent roommate rather than a stranger after their original roommates left to study abroad.

That's how Pitzer College sophomores Kayla Eland, female, and Lindon Pronto, male, began sharing a room this semester on Holden Hall's second floor. They are not a couple and neither is gay. They are just compatible roommates in a new, sometimes controversial, dormitory option known as gender-neutral housing that is gaining support at some colleges in California and across the nation.

Eland, a biology major who hopes to become a doctor, said that a roommate's personality and study habits are more important than gender. "This might not be right for everyone," she said of sharing the small, cinder block-walled room with a man. "But I think it's important to have the right to choose where you want to live, how you want to live and who you want to live with."

Pronto, an environmental studies major who works each summer as a forest firefighter, agreed. Apart from remembering to lower the toilet seat, he said, living with a woman friend is not much different from rooming with a man. "As far as I'm concerned, a roommate is a roommate," he said.

Although the number of participants remains small, gender-neutral housing has gained attention as the final step in the integration of student housing.

In the 1970s, many U.S. colleges moved from having only single-sex dormitories to providing coed residence halls, with male and female students typically housed on alternating floors or wings. Then came coed hallways and bathrooms, further shocking traditionalists. Now, some colleges allow undergraduates of opposite sexes to share a room.

Pitzer, which began its program in the fall of 2008, is among about 50 U.S. schools with the housing choice, according to Jeffrey Chang, who co-founded the National Student Genderblind Campaign in 2006 to encourage gender-mixed rooms. Participating schools include UC Riverside, UC Berkeley, Stanford, Cornell, Dartmouth, Sarah Lawrence, Haverford, Wesleyan and the University of Michigan.

College officials say the movement began mainly as a way to accommodate gay, bisexual and transgender students who may feel more comfortable living with a member of the opposite sex. Most schools say they discourage couples from participating, citing emotional and logistical problems of breakups. Officials say most heterosexuals in the programs are platonic friends.

"College students are adults," said Chang, who is gay and is now a law student at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "They have every single right to choose the person they feel most comfortable living with."

He estimates that at schools where the option exists, only 1% to 3% of students living on campus choose a roommate of the opposite sex.

Officials at the Assn. of College & University Housing Officers - International say the trend has accelerated, but they don't expect most schools to adopt it. Experts note that most students prefer a same-sex roommate, and some colleges are reluctant to antagonize parents, legislators and donors who view the option as immoral or even dangerous.

Pepperdine University in Malibu, which is affiliated with the Churches of Christ, maintains separate dorm wings and apartments for men and women. Asked whether it would consider going gender neutral, Sue Gamboa, a housing department office manager, said: "Not in the wildest dream would Pepperdine move in that direction."

Harvey Mudd College, next to Pitzer in the Claremont Colleges, began gender-neutral housing last fall mainly as an option for gay and transgender students, said Guy Gerbick, dean of residential life. Seven students joined; among them are a man and two women, all straight, who share a triple room.

Parents cannot veto such a decision at Harvey Mudd, but Gerbick asks students to discuss it with their families ahead of time. He also asks applicants whether they are romantically involved; all of this year's participants said no. But if they were, the school could not forbid them from rooming together.

"If we are going into a post-gender world, then the regulation of private behavior is just not practical," he said.

Several years ago, an earlier proposal for gender-neutral housing was killed at Harvey Mudd by skeptical administrators and older, more conservative trustees, Gerbick recalled. More recently, 74% of Harvey Mudd students voted in a survey to allow the option and, to Gerbick's satisfaction, a new administration agreed.

UC Berkeley senior Rose DeLeon-Foote, who has a male roommate, laughed at fears that gender-neutral housing might promote promiscuity. In fact, she said, the opposite is true when roommates see each other "all gnarly in the morning."

"It's not sexual, it's just not," said DeLeon-Foote, 19, of Sacramento.

Many schools restrict the option to upperclassmen, to certain floors or to residence halls with gay themes. Pitzer, which has about a dozen students participating this year, avoids such limits out of concern that they may marginalize students, said Chris Brunelle, director of residence life.

Pitzer housing applications ask whether students prefer a roommate to be woman, man, "other," or have no preference. Or students can request to live together, as Eland and Pronto did after losing their original roommates.

Their room, which shares a tiny bathroom with two men next door, has the usual collegiate trappings of beer bottles and political posters. The only unusual sight is women's clothes in one closet and men's in another.

The pair seem to have a warm brotherly-sisterly friendship and, while they try to be respectful, they say they are not inhibited about being in underwear or even nude while changing clothes in the room. They insist their living situation does not interfere with romantic relationships with other people. And although they have not been teased on campus, they face curious questions from relatives and friends.

"I definitely think it's generational," said Eland, 20, of Seattle. "For my grandparents, living with someone of the opposite sex, if he is not your serious boyfriend or husband or brother, would be very strange."

Pronto, 21, of Weimar, north of Sacramento, said his mother at first worried that he might be distracted by having a female roommate. And fellow firefighters at his "macho" summer barracks may joke about it, he said.

But at colleges, he said, "I think those old-fashioned ways of thinking are kind of dissipating. . . . Over the years, this division between men and women, which was so big, is slowly closing."

Eland's and Pronto's living arrangement won't last long.

Both will be studying overseas next fall, she in Spain, he in Costa Rica, and they are not sure where -- or with whom -- they will live when they return to school.

There's plenty of discussion in media about this subject, if you need more background. In fact, if you would like to read what both parents and students think about this, check the College Confidential discussion forum, where they have responded to a thread I started about this topic. Here's a sampling of their comments:

I had a female roommate (I am male) last year at Stanford and it was great . My best roommate pairing at stanford for sure.

I dont know why so many people seem to have trouble with this idea.


as long as you're not a romantic couple, I think it would work out fine, if not better, than most roommate pairings. Pomona will start allowing mixed-gender rooms next year and I know a couple people considering it


As far as couples living together, that certainly happens as well (this was the case with my neighbors last year actually). Stanford actually has a protocol in place for when those types of situations happen, so it was definitely thought about carefully. Ultimately though, its going to be the responsibility of the people in the relationship to decide if they can handle living together for a year, and no one else's. It isn't really the university's place to tell people that their relationship is too volatile for them to room together.


The GSA at my school is trying to create gender neutral housing... Part of their reasoning for it is that it will eliminate people making judgments on others' sexualities based on where they live (because we currently have an all-female dorm, and the stereotype, according to the GSA but no one else, is that the girls who live there are all lesbians). But I think they're wrong: it's just going to change from "she lives in the all-girls dorm, so she's a lesbian" to "she has a female roommate, so she's a lesbian".

But I support it, as long as there are options for single-gender halls so I don't have to share a bathroom with 20 guys. *shudder*


I am confused. Is the shared dorm policy based only on request or are guys and girls actually being paired together as freshmen?

I think it is dangerous and stupid to just pair away girls and guys in the same room if that is the case. Think of that weirdo creepy guy who did all that sketchy stuff at your high school getting paired with the homecoming queen. I think it just invites disaster. Or what about the dude with anger management issues who treats women like objects?

I think too many guys would have trouble controlling themselves. They aren't even adults yet. Too impulsive. Make things very uncomfortable.

I don't have a problem with it as an on-request basis, but random just seems horrible. Like, if you were a girl, how comfortable would you be to share a hotel with a random stranger of the opposite sex? Now, for a whole semester?


You aren't willing to go to a school if it does not require people to classify themselves as male or female?

I get being uncomfortable around people who do that, sure. But why would a school giving that as an option be a deal breaker?


There are lots of other comments, so check them out. I'd be interested in your take on this issue, so use the Comments section below to voice an opinion.


Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles and book reviews at College Confidential.