Last week, The New York Times featured a front page story on an emerging battle over admissions to France’s elite universities. The article, “Top French Schools, Asked to Diversify, Fear for Standards,” is on one level deeply reminiscent of the battles over affirmative action in the United States, but it also contained interesting twists that may offer lessons to American educators.
Familiar to American readers was the choice between meritocracy, as measured by test scores and the need to diversify the “overwhelmingly white”student population at the “grandes ecoles,” France’s most selective 220 schools. In February, Times reporter Steven Erlanger noted, the Conference des Grandes Ecoles adopted a controversial “Charter for Equal Opportunity,” in which schools committed to having 30% of the student bodies consist of low-income scholarship students by 2012, up from less than 10% today. Opponents argue that reaching the goal will compromise excellence. One school official told Erlanger, “We don’t want to bring students into school who risk failing.”
Two differences stand out between the French approach to affirmative action as compared with the American, one of which might be considered more “liberal,” while the other might be seen as more “conservative.”
1. Aggressive Goals
One the one hand, the explicit goal (30% low income representation) and the compressed time horizon (2012) is far more ambitious than most Americans would contemplate. The goal raises questions because the consequences of admitting students who will fail is profound – both for the students themselves and for a diversity policy. But as Anthony Carnevale and Jeff Strohl argue in new research, American universities now bend too far in the other direction. In Rewarding Strivers, they write:
The fixation on admitting students with the highest test scores either in the interest of prestige or to maximize the likelihood of graduation seems excessive. It seems to make selective colleges much too risk averse in balancing equity and efficiency goals. For example, we find that Barron’s “Most” selective and “Highly” selective colleges include the most prestigious 22 percent of college seats. The likelihood of graduating from one of these colleges for students with an SAT/ACT equivalent score of 1000 to 1200 is about 85 percent; but, according to Barron’s, these colleges tend to require test scores above 1250 for admission. The 1250 SAT/ACT score does increase the likelihood of graduating from 85 percent to 96 percent, but it also excludes large numbers of students who scored between 1000 and 1250 and would have a very high (85 percent) likelihood of graduating.
In earlier research, Carnevale and coauthor Stephen J. Rose found that selective universities could, through a merit based system that also considers socioeconomic disadvantage, boost the representation of students from the bottom socioeconomic half from 10% currently to 38% – even more ambitious than the French goal – and graduation rates would remain the same as under our current system of admissions that includes various preferences for minority students, athletes, and children of alumni.
2. Class, not Race.
At the same time, the French version of affirmative action could be seen as more “conservative” than the American brand because it focuses on class rather than race – something that many conservatives (and some liberals), have embraced. As a policy matter, France does not even keep statistics on race. And the minister of higher education argues, writes Erlanger, that “French who grow up in a poor neighborhood have the same difficulties regardless of ethnicity.” Recent research in the Unites States certainly confirms the primacy of economic over racial obstacles. Carnevale and Strohl found that in predicting SAT scores, the negative influence of being from a socioeconomically disadvantaged background is seven times as significant as being African American.
So maybe the French are on to something – both by emphasizing socioeconomic status over race, and by embracing highly ambitious goals. Educators across the globe will want to pay close attention to the new French twist on affirmative action in the coming years.