Complicated efforts at diversifying campuses and reprioritizing college entrance criteria have ignited debates on higher education in America for years. But in France, as the New York Times recently reported, these cans of worms are just now being popped open as President Nicolas Sarkozy’s government is urging its most elite schools to raise the percentage of students on scholarships.
Essentially, the French are just beginning to consider the notion that a higher education system that rewards and retains a privileged elite is not ideal. But give them credit for taking the problem head on now that it’s been identified.
The New York Times reports that France’s "grandes ecoles" — about 220 elite universities into which entry is virtually a guarantee of lifelong success — are being pressured to increase the proportion of students accepted on scholarships to at least 30 percent, at the risk of losing funding. Stubborn higher education authorities are afraid that standards will dip and that the scholarship students won’t be equipped to handle the rigorous academics once enrolled. The Times calls the French higher education system self-satisfied; The Independent refers to it as a "reluctant establishment."
If the grandes ecoles function the way the Ivy League does, and have far more qualified applicants than spots for enrollment, the fear of declining educational standards is a moot point — especially because every student, on scholarship or not, has to pass an incredibly competitive entrance exam. The bigger issue, and the point where France and America unavoidably part in addressing the issue, is that France cannot implement American-style affirmative action in the hopes of improving racial diversity at the grandes ecoles (which are publicly funded, unlike elite American universities) because, well … the country doesn’t classify its citizens racially and thus collects no statistics on the basis of race, religion or ethnicity. The only channel through which to promote diversity of all kinds, then, is on the basis of class, a category that many in the US still pretend doesn’t actually exist.
In years of chasing our tails and attempting to perform a near-impossible balancing act, America has seen how messy the diversification debate can become and how difficult it can be to achieve mass-based, race and class-exclusive higher education. Our systems are vastly differrent, but if we’re any example, the French have got their work cut out for them.