France's 'grandes écoles' are blanche

France’s elite universities, the grandes écoles, admit only the very best students, as measured by very difficult tests. Graduates end up running the country. Very few come from low-income, non-white or immigrant families. Now the French government wants to open elite schools to diverse students, reports the New York Times. But the grandes écoles fear that means lowering standards.

France is prodding schools like Sciences Po in Paris to set a goal of increasing the percentage of scholarship students to 30 percent.

The daughter of protective North African parents in the tough northeastern suburb of Bondy, Ms. Yazidi is enrolled in a trial program aimed at helping smart children of the poor overcome the huge cultural disadvantages that have often spelled failure in the crucial school entrance exams.

France sees itself as a color-blind meritocracy. But only affluent parents can afford the typical route to an elite university, “an extra two years of intensive study in expensive preparatory schools after high school.” Even then, half of prep school graduates don’t score well enough to enter the grandes écoles and end up at a lower-ranked university.

There is a serious question about how to measure diversity in a country where every citizen is presumed equal and there are no official statistics based on race, religion or ethnicity. A goal cannot be called a “quota,” which has an odor of the United States and affirmative action. Instead, there is the presumption here that poorer citizens will be more diverse, containing a much larger percentage of Muslims, blacks and second-generation immigrants.

The government may reduce the current exam’s reliance on familiarity with French history and culture to help students from immigrant backgrounds. In addition, the government will expand programs to “reach out to smart children, give them higher goals and help them get into preparatory schools” with scholarships.  It’s not yet clear whether these programs will produce students capable of passing the entrance exams.

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