Swarthmore juniors Jen Crick and her boyfriend, Omer Ikizler, didn't set out to live together this semester, but after failing to find single rooms on the same hall, they found the next best thing: a dorm room they could share.

Not just a coed dormitory, or coed hallway, but the very same room.

Across the nation's campuses, a small but growing number of students are signing up to live with the opposite sex, with 50-plus colleges and universities offering coed suites and coed rooms.

This fall, at least 17 of those campuses will try it for the first time, including Princeton, Yale, and Lehigh Universities and the University of Vermont.

Typically, such "gender-neutral" housing is framed as a campus-rights issue for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students. The idea is that they should not have to live with same-sex roommates - a setting that may make both students feel uncomfortable.

But removing gender restrictions in dorm rooms has also found wide appeal among heterosexual students, who are thinking about gender relations - and friendship - in new ways.

At Lehigh, which offers group housing for those interested in substance-free living, green awareness, or ROTC - to name a few - the decision to offer gender-blind housing was unremarkable, said Jennifer Scaia Sweeney, director of residence life.

"We thought it was a pretty common program to have," she said.

Ten upper-class students have signed up to live in four suites in the fall, she said, and the option may be offered eventually to freshmen, something that is still uncommon.

Jeffrey Chang, who led the charge as an undergrad to get gender-neutral housing at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., is surprised at how quickly the movement has spread.

"Five years ago when we started, no one was talking about this," said Chang, cofounder of the National Student Genderblind Campaign and a law student at Rutgers University. Today, he noted, even college tour guides mention it. "That's really amazing."

While some couples want to live together for its obvious benefits, many students simply want to live with friends of the opposite sex.

"This is a student body where a lot of the kids had gay-straight alliances in their high schools," said Heather Love, a University of Pennsylvania professor of gender studies who lives at Gregory College House, which has a couple of gender-neutral rooms.

"And there's a lot of questioning in this age group of sexual norms and sexual morality and gender norms. They're ready to really rethink a lot of those take-for-granted prescriptions about how to live and who to love. I see that very broadly across the student body."

At Swarthmore College - which along with Penn and Haverford College has offered this housing for several years - Florida sophomore Jenna Davis sees it as a political issue.

"We're very self-conscious about hegemonic gender norms," she said, referring to the assumption that heterosexuality is universal. "It's part of the Swatty mind-set."

Beyond wanting to support the GLBT community, Davis, like many of her peers, said the housing option was a student right and a decision that, as adults, they should be able to make.

But a romantic roommate situation? That's not for her - or her best friend, Philip Chodrow.

"Most people realize for practical reasons it's a pretty bad idea," said Chodrow, of Staunton, Va.

Even sexual relationships with hall mates is seen as a no-no of this new social order. It's called "hallcest," Davis said.

In the fall, Davis and Chodrow - who bonded over existentialist literature - will live in gender-neutral housing. The friends played the housing lottery as a duo and got two singles on the same hall.

"We'll be neighbors!" Chodrow said.

Driven by demand

The move toward gender-blind housing reflects an evolution that started 40 years ago when more women began arriving on campus - and the need to house them spilled over into all-male residence halls.

Coed dormitories have become so popular that one survey of large universities found that 93 percent of college students lived in them.

According to the study, published in the Journal of Adolescent Research last year, many housing deans reported virtually no interest in single-sex dorms. And at two large Midwestern institutions with a total of 91,500 students, just 10 people requested old-fashioned all-female or all-male residence halls for the 2006-07 academic year.

Brian Willoughby, a visiting professor at Brigham Young University and the article's lead author, said that just as the women's movement had reshaped the makeup of dorms, pressure from the gay-lesbian community was reshaping the makeup of dorm rooms.

"It's almost identical to what we saw 30 years ago in the transition to coed dorms," Willoughby said. "We are seeing the exact same mechanism with these gender-neutral housing policies, where it's being driven by the GLBT community and then we have a whole lot of student demand for this kind of housing."

Katie Schaffer, a Swarthmore sophomore, and her roommate, Dan Bath, said sex was in no way a factor when they decided to room together last fall.

"He and I were good friends last year, and at some point I asked if he wanted to live together next year, and he said 'Yeah,' " Schaffer said.

Their parents did not oppose the move.

"I think my father was probably confused about it - when he was growing up this wasn't accepted - but he believed me when I said I thought it would be good," said Bath, of Clarksville, Md. "He trusted my assessment of the situation."

Both students said they had a smooth year as roommates; their only complaint was that they didn't have more rooms to choose from. Gender-neutral housing is available at most Swarthmore residence halls, but not on every floor.

Changing times

On some campuses, the coed rooming quest has been a hot-button topic. Facebook teems with more than 100 pages and groups devoted to campus movements for it, and it's not uncommon for student government campaigns to list gender-blind housing as a top issue.

At Yale, more than a dozen students staged an outdoor "sleep-in" in March 2009, braving 20-degree temperatures for the right to live together.

Setting up orange tents, they posted a sign that read, "The Only Gender Neutral Housing at Yale," and sang Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'," the Yale Daily News reported.

Yale junior Matt Gerken, who calls himself a "conservative curmudgeon," felt the tone of the debate left no room for dissent. Those who objected, he said, were cast as politically incorrect knuckle-draggers.

"The way this was sold here, at least in rhetoric, was not like a dorm for a few. It was like this must become universal now for everyone."

Gerken started a Facebook group called "I Oppose Gender-Neutral Housing at Yale" for those "who recognize that gender is neither a choice nor an oppressive social construction."

The trend has taken hold at a few big schools, such as Washington University in St. Louis and the University of Connecticut, but mostly it's in the Ivies and smaller liberal arts colleges.

"There are schools I can't imagine would ever have this on their campus," said James Baumann, spokesman for the Association of College and University Housing Officers.

Villanova and St. Joseph's Universities, for instance, do not offer coed dorm rooms but do have coed residence halls.

At Drew University in Madison, N.J., administrators tabled coed rooming two years ago because it was too fraught. Parents did not want it, nor did many alumni.

"It wasn't a clear-cut thing where everyone said this is what we should do, or even a strong majority," said Drew spokesman David Muha.

Elsewhere, parents may not fully appreciate how far things have gone.

"I've heard parents saying, 'Wow, I wasn't even aware this was happening,' " said Willoughby, of Brigham Young. "They're fine with a coed building. But they have reservations about them being in the same room. I wonder if, as this becomes more popular, if there's a parental backlash coming."

So far, officials at Swarthmore, Penn, and Lehigh say they have registered no complaints from parents.

At Swarthmore, Crick and Ikizler consulted their parents and a housing dean before moving in together this semester.

To avoid becoming coed casualties, they developed strategies to handle tensions and found places to retreat to when they needed space.

"I've certainly heard stories about people who have moved in together and their relationships implode," said Ikizler, who is from Nashville.

The challenge of living together has brought them closer, and will help next year when Crick will be studying in Madagascar, the couple said.

And it was, both agreed, an education.

"I felt like I knew everything when I started because I'm 21 - what don't I know?" Ikizler said with a laugh. "But I learned a lot."

Contact staff writer Trish Wilson at 610-313-8095 or twilson@phillynews.com.