Many university leaders at selective institutions say they would love to admit more low-income and working-class students but complain that there simply aren’t enough qualified candidates who can do the work and succeed in rigorous academic programs.
But last week, the Institute of Political Studies of Paris, a prestigious French university also known as Sciences Po, released a new study of its 10-year-old affirmative action program that suggests that a highly selective institution can substantially expand socioeconomic diversity and still graduate large numbers of students who go on to top careers.
Unlike American affirmative action programs, which tend to help under-represented minorities, the French approach provides a leg up in admissions to low-income and working-class students of all races. Under the program, Sciences Po recruited top students from 85 disadvantaged high schools who would not otherwise have qualified and provided them admission and generous financial aid. Students in the program, known as the “Priority Education Conventions,” now make up about 10 percent of the student body.
Coupled with economically disadvantaged students who are admitted through traditional routes, the program raised the proportion of students from “working class or underprivileged” backgrounds to 28.5 percent of the student body. This proportion is substantially higher than at many selective American institutions, where, at the top 146 institutions, only 10 percent of students on average come from the bottom two socioeconomic quartiles.
The Sciences Po study tracked the progress of 860 students who were part of the special program to see whether they performed well academically and whether they went on to good jobs. Critics had raised concerns that students admitted through the socioeconomic affirmative-action policy would struggle academically and that graduates would be seen as tainted and shunned by employers.
But the research, conducted by sociologist Vincent Tiberj, found that students admitted through the socioeconomic affirmative action program “keep up or quickly catch up with their peers,” and the dropout rate was “marginal.” Moreover, the study found, “employers treated them either like their peers, or perhaps better.” Overall, the study concluded, “the students who were admitted through this program had more difficulties than their classmates in adapting to Sciences Po, but in the end the very large majority obtained their degrees and now are employed in ‘classic’ jobs for Sciences Po graduates.”
Adoption of the program at Sciences Po took the leadership of director Richard Descoings, who strongly believed that the institution needed to move beyond a student body marked by affluence. In the U.S., a few leaders, such as former Amherst College president Anthony Marx, have taken strong steps, but doing so can be seen as risky because any affirmative action program can mean lower median test scores and thereby lower rankings. What is to be done?
According to an innovative article by Vassar president Catherine Hill, institutions would likely be far more aggressive if socioeconomic diversity affected their rankings in U.S. News & World Report. Years ago, Bob Shireman and I met with U.S. News officials to consider socioeconomic diversity in rankings, and the magazine did agree to publish socioeconomic data about institutions. But the data are just informational and don’t affect the all-important rankings.
In a recent article, Hill moved the ball forward by outlining a simple but clever way to work socioeconomic diversity into the rankings. Just as U.S. News now looks at actual graduation rates compared with predicted graduation rates, so the rankings could compare the predicted socioeconomic diversity of an institution given its SAT selectivity level with the actual level of economic diversity. Some would exceed expectations and be rewarded in the rankings, others would lag and be punished. Institutional mission statements emphasize the importance of diversity; and financial aid often exceeds total faculty salaries, so why should U. S. News ignore this issue in the rankings, she asks?
The Sciences Po experiment suggests that in France the old excuse that there aren’t enough working-class students who are “college material” will no longer fly. Now all we need is some positive incentives for American colleges to take action the way Sciences Po did a decade ago.