Percentage Based Admission Systems: A Way to Make French Higher Education More Diverse?

Over the past fifty years, minority populations in France have grown rapidly. This growth has made many of these minorities more visible, and in certain cases, more vocal. To some extent, France has failed to include these outlying groups in the nation’s political and economic mainstreams. Many scholars, politicians and journalists have attributed France’s integration problems to an education system that is highly competitive, hierarchal and seemingly unfriendly towards immigrant populations and people living in rural areas. 

Such inequality can be attributed to many factors, among them unequal access to primary and secondary education, less support from parents who speak limited or no French, lowered expectations on the part of educators and less access to external educational and cultural resources that are often helpful when preparing oneself for the entrance to a university or highly competitive elite colleges, know as les Grandes Ecoles.

In this paper, we intend to analyze current efforts to increase regional and economic diversity within elite institutions of higher learning. Following an analysis of current and past initiatives, we will examine a law currently under discussion in the French Senate that seeks to increase access to Grandes Ecoles by standardizing admissions to the preparatory classes that precede them. Drawing on experiences from the French model and the State of Texas, we intend to argue that this proposal has significant potential. However, implementation of the policy will be key in determining whether it will be successful or not. 

Current Challenges in French Higher Education

Before discussing the viability of a new admissions policy, a discussion of the French system of higher education is in order. French higher education is based on a two-track system. On the one hand you have the universities, where access is granted to every student possessing a high school diploma. Selection of students to competitive disciplines (like law or medicine) takes place during the first years of study. On the other hand you have the Grandes Ecoles, a parallel system of elite institutions concentrating on domains such as business, engineering, humanities or government. Traditionally, the French elite has come form these institutions. Some of the most famous are Polytechnique, HEC, Ecole Normale Supérieure and ENA. Admission to these schools is uniquely based on very selective competitive exams (concours). In most cases, candidates pass this exam after two years of preparatory class. These classes are based on a high school model and are reputed for their tough demands and heavy workload. Admission to prep classes is determined by grades, and place of former education.

As mentioned before, certain regional and economic minorities are generally under-represented in the Grandes Ecoles. Today, a student from an upper class family has twenty times greater chance of getting into an elite institution than a student from a working-class background. Their representation has actually been going down dramatically, especially when compared with earlier periods. In the 1950’s, 29% of students in France’s top four schools came from working-class background. By the mid 1990’s, this proportion had fallen to 9%. However, 60% of France’s population is defined as working-class. According to Claude Bébéar, one of France’s top business executives, French leaders are recruited from only ten percent of the population. In other words, French enterprises are taking their talent from had a population of 6 million instead of 60! Minority representation is somewhat higher in the broad university system, including elite disciplines like law and medicine. This is probably based on the fact that their selection does not take place at the beginning of their studies but after a certain point. 

What are the underlying causes of the underrepresentation of minority groups in elite institutions? It seems clear that the major obstacle lies in the system of preparatory classes. People from poor and rural areas are not getting access to preparatory classes. Although preparatory classes are in general free, admission is not based on baccalauréat scores, but on grades achieved throughout school. Other factors, such as where a student went to school and his or her social network also influence admissions chances. Critics of the current system often speak of « insider information ». Students with parents who are familiar with the system more easily comply with admission criteria. In other words, they know how to play the game. Over 50% of students in prep class have parents who are in liberal professions or are high-ranking administrators. This includes teachers, who know better than anyone how to guide their children through the complex world of French education. Applicants from wealthy families have better schools, special summer programs and tutors at their disposal to prepare for entrance exams. 

According to Mehdi Ouraoui, leader of the organization Conférence Pericles and himself a high-achieving student at ENS and Sciences Po « admissions to preparatory classes are totally unfair. Admission is often based on socially determined subjects, such as language skills or general culture. If you don’t come from a certain social background, you lack the skills necessary to compete for a spot in preparatory courses. 

For Philippe Heudron, President of the Association des Professeurs en Classes Préparatoires Economiques et Commerciales (APHEC), the causes of under-representation of minorities in elite schools lies also in the structure of the educational system, where French children are made to choose which way to take at a very early age. According to M. Heudron, 65 percent of students in prep classes have a scientific baccalauréat, the remaining students choosing a literary or commercial «bac». However, the scientific bac is almost exclusively preferred by pupils coming from an upper or middle class background. Pupils from poorer conditions tend to choose a more vocational high school diploma (like mechanics), which is seen as having a more certain value on the job market. 

Over the years, various policies have been enacted to rectify underrepresentation without altering the basic structure of the French model. Let’s look at two of these examples, notably the « Conventions Education Prioritaire » at Sciences Po and the experience at ENSAM engineering school.

Sciences Po, a school specializing in government and social sciences, is one of the most influential institutions in French higher education. Graduates include such notables as President Jacques Chirac and former UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali. In 2001, the elite school adopted an alternative admissions program for students from poor neighborhoods largely populated by immigrants. The program caused uproar when it was introduced. Critics claimed that a uniform entrance exam (the traditional admission procedure) was the only fair way to determine a student’s qualifications. Proponents of the policy contended that standardized exams favor those with the economic means to better prepare for them. At Sciences Po, 80 percent of the students come from the top 30 percent of society in terms of income, while only 2 percent have working-class origins. Candidates from the lycées that have a partnership with Sciences Po are subject to a procedure similar to college entrance applications in the United States. Teachers recommend their best students, who then have to submit written papers and undergo an interview by a jury. In 2005, 57 candidates where admitted through this procedure. 

Another example of recent initiatives is the procedure established by the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Arts et Métiers (ENSAM), one of France’s leading engineering schools. They are offering preparation classes to students attending high schools in deprived areas. The novelty of this program is that ENSAM is not only giving this opportunity to the students pursuing a scientific baccalauréat, but also to those who do more a vocational high school diploma, such as car mechanics. After high school, these students go on to prep class while at the same time pursuing a vocational degree. After two or three years they pass the admission exam, but if they fail they still have their vocational diploma giving them access to the job market. This disposition responds to one of the main reasons why many students from poor backgrounds do not go to prep class. Many fear that if they fail their exam they will have nothing to show for their efforts. The ENSAM procedure eliminates this fear by assuring that the students will get a degree even if they do not pass the exam. 

The initiatives mentioned above have had many positive side effects. Most importantly, they have had a spillover effect in poor communities, giving children the hope that they too could have the chance to attend elite institutions. However, the lasting impact of these policies has to be questioned because their scope remains limited. The Sciences Po and ENSAM initiatives are put in place by private institutions and they affect only a limited number of high school students. Sciences Po has agreements with 33 high schools, yet there are over 1500 high schools in France. What about the students not attending the partner schools?  To date, it is questionable whether these initiatives will have any long-lasting effects on social mobility. On the contrary, it seems that they will contribute to an institutional make-up that looks better in newspaper articles than it does on the ground. From a global perspective, it seems necessary that the French state should adopt an approach to minority under-representation rather than leave in the hands of private institutions.  

Working Towards a Solution; the Viability of Percentage Based Admissions

French inclusion of underrepresented groups in higher education remains dismal despite recent efforts towards integration. Both the scale and the highly politicized nature of the problem make it difficult to resolve. French Senator Yannick Bodin, a socialist, feels that he has taken a first step towards greater diversity and integration at elite institutions. In January 2006, Senator Bodin proposed a law creating an admissions system that would guarantee lycée students access to preparatory classes if their baccalauréat scores put them in the top of their class. According to Bodin, the goal of the new law is to promote greater economic and regional diversity within the Grandes Ecoles by giving under-represented students an opportunity to compete for spots in these elite institutions through participation in the preparatory classes. “It’s about returning to the founding principles of the Grandes Ecoles”, says Senator Bodin, “educating an elite based on merit and not on birth.”

Bodin’s proposal is based on a solution presented by French academic Patrick Weil in his book  La République et sa diversité , published in 2005. In this book, Weil draws on a policy model first used, surprisingly, in the State of Texas. In 1997, the Texas Legislature implemented a policy that granted automatic university admissions to all students graduating in the top ten percent of their high school class. Weil and Bodin believe that a law founded on this experience has the potential to increase regional and economic diversity in elite institutions of higher education, such as the Grandes Ecoles.

Evidence from Texas seems to suggest that an admissions policy based on a student’s class rank has the capacity to increase the presence of under-represented students at competitive institutions. In the years following the implementation of the “top ten percent rule” at the University of Texas, the enrollment of minority students grew steadily. In 1997, only 190 African American students entered the University of Texas. By the fall of 2005, that number had nearly doubled to 350. This growth in the enrolment of African American students was paralleled by significant rises in the presence of other racial minorities at the university.

In addition to racial minorities, “the top ten percent rule” increased the regional diversity present at the University of Texas at Austin. As University of Texas System Regent Brian Haley points out, “The top ten percent rule led to a marked increase in the number of students coming to the University from low income and rural areas. It made the university more reflective of the state as a whole.” While the original intent of the policy was to promote racial diversity at the University of Texas, it made it easier for students living in underrepresented areas to gain admission to the university.          

These results seem to indicate that the adoption of a system of automatic, rank based admissions has the capability to increase diversity in the preparatory classes that precede admission to the Grandes Ecoles. However, will this policy improve diversity in schools themselves? In other words, will students from underrepresented areas perform well enough in preparatory classes to move on to the next level? 

Once again, evidence from Texas seems to indicate that minority students admitted under a rank or percentage based admissions system will perform as well as, if not better than many of their colleagues. At the University of Texas, minority students admitted under “the top ten percent rule” had retention and graduation rates only slightly lower than other students. Moreover, the first year grade point averages of minority students admitted under the top ten percent rule slightly exceeded those of non-minority students in several fields of study and were insignificantly lower in others. The performance of minority students admitted under the top ten percent law was surprisingly similar to that of other students, despite the persistence of unequal educational backgrounds. 

These conclusions are confirmed in the French context by the Sciences Po experience discussed above. According to Cyril Delhay, program director at Sciences Po, students recruited under the alternative admissions program have obtained the same results as students accepted under the traditional procedure, thus refuting claims that they would be unable to compete with students who had passed the entrance exam. As Delhay points out, « Several are among the first in their class, others have to redo a year, we have the whole breadth of results.»

From these experiences one can assume that minority students admitted to preparatory classes under a rank or percentage based admissions policy will perform as well as their peers, allowing some of these students access to the Grandes Ecoles. Yet, this does not present the picture in its entirety. If France hopes to improve minority participation in preparatory classes, and eventually within its elite institutions, it must also take steps at the primary and secondary level. Even though the majority of French primary and secondary schools are public, major differences exist between neighborhoods. As an example, real estate prices in Paris follow school rankings. The establishment of a rank or percentage admission systems is by no means a magic bullet for increasing diversity in throughout the higher education system.  

A major obstacle to diversity in French elite education is self-censorship by the minorities themselves. « The best students in Saint-Denis (a tough suburb of Paris) don’t even know these elite schools exist », says Mehdi Ouraoui. A brilliant student at a poor suburban school may be directed by his supervisors towards a less prestigious career, such as vocational training. It is a fact that the majority of students in France’s technical high schools come from a working class background. This sets a harmful precedent for students from similar backgrounds as a top education is perceived as being out of reach for even the most talented pupils.

Thus, effective implementation of the policy under discussion requires the state and its educational institutions to actively recruit students who are traditionally underrepresented in the Grandes Ecoles. Simply granting admission to preparatory classes is not enough. Enrolling minorities means actively pursuing talented students from underrepresented groups and areas and encouraging them to attend. One recent encouraging example is a new initiative by Ecole Normale Supérieure to send their students as tutors to schools located in poor areas.

As Bruce Walker, Dean of Admissions at the University of Texas points out, Texas launched a major campaign to recruit minority students following the passage of the top ten percent rule. In 1997, the University obtained a list of 13,000 high achieving minority students. Representatives of the University of Texas then called virtually all of these high schoolers to tell them about the new law and to encourage them to apply for admissions. While the policy currently being considered in the French Senate has great potential, it needs to be accompanied by an intense public relations campaign in areas where participation in preparatory classes is negligent (like the suburbs and rural areas). Unfortunately, this is a gradual process and will not take place overnight.

Another problem confronting implementation of a percentage based admissions policy is that many young people living in under-represented regions will have to leave their homes to attend a preparatory class. As Philippe Heudron points out, for students from upper strata of society the passage from lycée to preparatory class is seen as a return to a familiar environment, and the most natural way to maintain their social status. For poor students however, attending a preparatory class means entering an unfamiliar social environment. In a way, these students are caught between two worlds. Since they’re not yet admitted to a prestigious school they haven’t completed their social ascension, yet they have broken the ties with their former community. 

One way to counter the alienation that may arise from the diversification of preparatory classes is to hold these courses in underprivileged areas. However, according to Christian Forestier, a high-ranking official in the Ministry of Education, « a banlieue prepa will not prepare a brilliant student well enough to get into the top schools like Polytechnique or HEC. » In fact, 3/4 of candidates admitted to the top-ranking Grandes Ecoles come from about 15 different preparatory schools, most of which are situated in Paris. « But for a more standard pupil », Forestier continues, « a banlieue prepa may prepare him well enough to get into a less prestigious Grande Ecole ». For, Philippe Heudron, the debate of « banlieue » vs « elite » preparatory schools reveals a more general question in the current debate. Should one try to get a few brilliant students from deprived neighborhoods into the top schools, or is it better to get a large number of students into less prestigious schools? « For a student whose father is a manual worker, getting into a second-tier school represents, in any case, a big leap upwards in terms of social mobility ». 

This argument joins the debate concerning the usefulness of private initiatives such as the Sciences Po alternative admissions procedure. A project is currently put in place at Henri IV, one of the top Parisian preparatory schools. In September 2006, Henri IV will admit a class of high achieving students from tough neighborhoods to prepare them for the Grandes Ecoles entrance exams. « For the few students concerned, it’s a great step », says Heudron. « But one should question if it is not just one more way to brush over the misery. What about all the other kids out there? » 

Finding the answers to these and other questions will ultimately determine whether France is able to increase diversity in preparatory classes and by extension, its Grandes Ecoles. Although a system of percentage based admissions holds some promise, it must be accompanied by a more active recruitment of students from underrepresented areas, a generous system of financial aid and the regional diversification of preparatory classes. These measures should seek to make the transition from lycée to preparatory class less socially awkward than it currently is. If the law proposed by senator Bodin is not supported by supplementary measures it may fail to have a lasting impact.  

Increasing diversity in French institutions of higher education is of vital importance. Today, there is a growing sense that France is becoming a fractured society where prospects for moving upwards are dim. As global competition increases it is clear that France must include many of its now underrepresented groups at all levels of society. Even if a percentage based admissions system lives up to its full potential, it is only the first step in a long and challenging process.

References

Bébéar, Claude. Ouvrir les grandes écoles à la diversité. Institut Montaigne, 2006.

Delhay, Cyril. Le Monde. June 21 2006.

« Implementation and Results of the Texas Automatic Admissions Law (HB 588) at the University of Texas at Austin » Found online : http://www.utexas.edu/student/admissions/research/index.html

Delhay, Cyril. Le Monde. June 21 2006.

Smith, Starita. « Minority Enrollment Creeps Upward at Texas Universities : New Recruitment Strategies and the 10 Percent Law Credited. » Black Issues in Higher Education. 1998.   

Interviews

Bodin, Yannick. Personal Interview. 28 June 2006.

Haley, Brian. Telephone Interview. 23 June 2006.

Heudron, Phillipe. Personal interview. 27 June 2006.

Forestier, Christian. Personal Interview. 27 June 2006.

Ouraioui, Mehdi. Personal Interview. 26 June 2006.

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