'Positive Discrimination' at Sciences Po

September 15, 2011

Poor and ethnic-minority students selected through what is called "positive discrimination" are thriving at an elite French university, according to a report by one of its academics.

L’Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris – better known as Sciences Po – was criticized when it announced it would drop entrance examinations for 10 percent of its intake in 2001 to recruit more poor students. Schools in deprived areas put forward their most promising pupils for admission via interview, with those chosen eligible for financial aid to cover fees.

Critics said the Priority Education Conventions program would fail because the students would be stigmatized as "second class." They also claimed that it contradicted the French Republic’s egalitarian principles by favoring black and Asian students over white students. But a study by sociologist Vincent Tiberj into the achievements of "priority students" in the past decade shows otherwise.

Tiberj, who works at Sciences Po’s European Studies Unit, found that priority students kept pace with their peers academically and often earned more after they graduated. Tracking the 860 students who have been through the program so far, the study found that the overwhelming majority quickly caught up with their peers and that dropout rates were "marginal."

Analysis of graduates who left ­between 2006 and 2011 found that the proportion in full-time employment three months after graduation (63 percent) was higher than among other students (56 percent). And half of priority students earned at least E300 ($412) a month more than the average monthly wage for Sciences Po graduates.

"These former students are not considered 'cut-price Sciences Po' graduates,” said Tiberj. "Quite the contrary: employers treated them like their peers or perhaps better."

The vast majority of students in the program "obtained degrees and were now employed in 'classic' jobs for Sciences Po graduates."

Sciences Po is held to be on a similar level to France’s grandes écoles, which hold entrance exams and operate outside the main higher education framework.

Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, and former heads of state Jacques Chirac and Francois Mitterrand are among those to have attended Sciences Po, widely seen as the French equivalent of the London School of Economics.

Peter Gumbel, professor of journalism and director of Sciences Po’s Center for the Americas, said that following the success of the program there was "now an informal target of having 30 percent of students at grandes écoles from a more socially diverse background."

However, Daniel Sabbagh, a senior research Fellow at Sciences Po’s Center of International Studies and Research, has accused supporters of affirmative action of "dissimulation," saying they "systematically play down the most contentious aspects of the policy, namely its anti-meritocratic component."

In a paper presented at an American Political Science Association conference shortly after the program was launched, he called for Sciences Po to be more candid about its ­intentions, saying the effort is an "indirect, race-based affirmative action policy," which will disproportionately benefit children from African immigrant families, given that they are more likely to live in deprived areas.

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