It started as an undergraduate assignment: Two Stanford students, tasked with a final for an economics class, made a dating questionnaire that aimed to illuminate the factors governing the romantic market. They playfully called it the “Marriage Pact.”
The students began to promote the questionnaire by word of mouth and through an Instagram account, and received 4,000 responses within five days. By then it was clear that this was more than just homework.
“It’s a forced exercise in introspection that you don’t undergo very often,” said Shan Reddy, 21, a Stanford student who took the survey in 2019. “It’s not often that, as a college student, you’re thinking about how many kids you want or where you want to raise your family or what kind of values you want to instill in your children.”
The questionnaire features 50 statements and asks students to rate their responses on a scale from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree.” Some examples include: “I would be OK if I spent my life doing good for others, but did not receive recognition for it”; “I prefer politically incorrect humor”; “Gender roles exist for a good reason”; and “I like drama.” Unlike with dating apps, there are no photos of the applicants involved.
After about a week, the survey closes, the responses are run through an algorithm, and the respondents are paired off to enjoy long-lasting matrimony.
Admittedly, the “marriage” part is a joke — or at least optional. But the pact’s creators, Liam McGregor and Sophia Sterling-Angus, think the fake stakes are part of the draw.
Mr. McGregor, who lives in Seattle and is unemployed, said in a recent phone interview that the questionnaire is meant to match students with a “backup plan” or a “practical choice,” a person you can marry if “at 35, when all of your friends are getting married,” he said, and “you start to ask yourself, ‘What’s going on?’”
He and Ms. Sterling-Angus, 24, who lives in New York and is a business analyst for McKinsey & Company, wrote the statements based on publications in academic journals they read about compatible relationships. They also read the research behind the “36 Questions That Lead to Love,” but Mr. McGregor clarified that they were not looking to help strangers fall in love; instead, they were focused on compatibility pairings within a set group of individuals.
“If you’re going to make a marriage pact in college, what are the odds that the person you already know is the best person for you?” Mr. McGregor said. “It’s entirely possible that you could never meet that best person just because there are too many people.”
For Mr. Reddy and Cristina Danita, the matchup led to real courtship: They started dating in January 2020, two months before students had to leave campus because of the pandemic.
Ms. Danita, 21, an international student, decided to crash at Mr. Reddy’s parent’s house in Las Vegas. It was simpler than flying back to her home in Moldova, especially because international flights were halted.
“Even though we were only in a relationship for two months, his parents were inviting,” Ms. Danita said.
Eight months later, the couple decided to move back to campus but this time they requested a couples dorm. The two are still together.
It may seem odd that college students are thinking about getting married, given that the average age for tying the knot has steadily risen over time.
But in a chaotic and often unsafe world, imagining a future partnership is a small exercise in feeling that things will turn out OK, said Galit Atlas, a faculty member in the postdoctoral program in psychotherapy and psychoanalysis at New York University.
Young people are just like the rest of us — filled with anxiety and existential dread. The survey, Dr. Atlas said, is meant to reassure them: “You’re not going to end up alone.”
The Marriage Pact has spread to 51 colleges, but not all of its matches have gotten along like Ms. Danita and Mr. Reddy. Some never reach out and never meet. And on some campuses, the gender ratio of survey takers can limit the number of matches according to sexual orientation.
At Middlebury College, for example, 260 straight women were left without a match this year, according to The Middlebury Campus. An email and Instagram campaign was started, calling for men attracted to straight women to “be a hero” and “fill the gap.”
Many universities, including Vanderbilt and Tufts, brought the Marriage Pact to their campuses in 2020 specifically because of the pandemic, hoping to unite their fractured campuses during a year filled with social unrest.
Ameer Haider, 21, a Vanderbilt student, heard about the pact from his cousin at Duke, who also hosted the survey. He reached out to Mr. McGregor to start the matchmaking on campus after a hard year. Though the original Marriage Pact creators have a hand in making the surveys, each Marriage Pact is tailored to the demographics of each participating campus.
“I thought Vandy was ripe for something like this,” Mr. Haider said, using a nickname for the school. “Campus was increasingly isolated due to campus restrictions for Covid-19. We didn’t have a spring break, unfortunately, just due to university policy, and classes were just such a drag, honestly. Students were really, really bored, really, really numb, or maybe just overwhelmed, sort of disunited.”
Mr. Haider — and eight friends he was adamant to give a shout-out to — organized and promoted the questionnaire. Over six days, 4,086 students submitted responses, Mr. Haider said.
“It absolutely turned our campus upside down!” he said. Rumors started to swirl. Couples that had broken up took the survey, matched, and were now back on again. Others split. Some ignored their matches. New friends were being made. Campus felt like a campus again, Mr. Haider said.
When Tufts embraced the Marriage Pact last November, more than 3,000 students signed up.
“The campus morale was kind of down, I think everyone was uncertain about what online courses were going to look like,” said Anne Lau, 21, a student at Tufts who helped bring the pact to campus with the help of her housemates. A lot of the excitement, she said, came “from freshmen who wanted a college experience and who were coming back onto campus and wanted to meet their cohort.”
Sophomores and juniors at Tufts were more “jaded,” Ms. Lau said. But the freshmen on campus were tired of being cooped up and feeling like the world was ending, she said. The survey helped the campus feel smaller and gave students something to talk about other than the impending doom on their television screens.
“This does more good than it does harm,” Ms. Lau said. “And a lot of people have actually been looking forward to fun.”