One French School's Secret for Making Affirmative Action Work

Before Richard Descoings died suddenly and scandalously last week, he made controversial -- and surprisingly successful -- changes to how one of France's most elite universities builds its student body.

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Richard Descoings arrives at the Elysee Palace in 2009 to submit a study on high school reforms. Reuters

France's Institut d'Études Politiques de Paris, known colloquially as Sciences Po, has trained two out of the past three French presidents, four out of the past six prime ministers, countless other assorted politicians and diplomats, and a significant chunk of Europe's top CEOs and financiers. Until 2001, the students who came in were just as socially élite as the graduates who came out.

In 2001, that began to change. The man at the heart of the change was Richard Descoings, who was found dead in a Manhattan hotel last week. And though questions remain about the circumstances of his death, it's his work leading Sciences Po that will surely determine his legacy. He has left promoters of social mobility in education -- both French and American -- plenty to think about.

In the early 2000s, Descoings and Sciences Po introduced what could only be called affirmative action, to predictable controversy. Affirmative action in the U.S. has tended to target race or gender, and any affirmative action policies have to be careful not to run afoul of the Constitution. In a landmark 1978 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that U.C. Davis's medical school had, in setting aside 16 seats for non-white students, violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Some of the justices pointed to conflicts with the Civil Rights Act as well.

Sciences Po's success could be due to what has been billed as an aggressive tutoring program.

The Sciences Po affirmative action program did not and does not involve quotas, nor is it race-based. It aimed to open the school up to underprivileged students  to, in a sense, import them. The school replaced its admissions system with one tailored to individual backgrounds. French applicants could take an entry exam or seek admission on the strength of high grades on the baccalauréat; international applicants would submit a folder with grades and standardized test scores. Meanwhile, 85 secondary schools serving disadvantaged areas were simply told to send over their best students for Sciences Po's review. The school provided whatever financial aid necessary.

Such a bold program was bound to draw fire. Critics accused the school of flashy political correctness, and of losing sight of excellence while focused on cosmetic issues. Even last week, as French papers reviewed the program's legacy, one article suggested Descoings was simply pulling a clever media stunt.

The story of how Descoings justified his demographic educational intervention, and how he made it work as well as it did, might have lessons for anyone looking to make education more democratic and more accessible to students who are disadvantaged by their background. As Descoings and his colleagues saw it, there were "two dangers" in having a leader-training school as homogenous and exclusive as was Sciences-Po. Here's what they wrote in Le Monde back in 2001, explaining their position:

The first [danger] is in weakening the legitimacy of these institutions. That an élite could become synonymous with caste, that the teaching of excellence could appear as a simple machine of social reproduction, and that the republican social contract is not upheld. [...] The second danger concerns the conditions themselves. In being mixed [only] with similar students, the students of this selective education will only have a partial experience of the realities to which they are not exposed. One fears that they will ignore entire swaths of French society for want of having been confronted, in the course of their education, with the otherness of those who have a different cultural and social origin.

The problem with a student body that comes almost exclusively from a privileged background, in other words, is that this "one percent" could become a permanent and hereditary one percent. Entrenching privilege is undesirable on its own, but it also means that the leaders of tomorrow will have no direct experience with the people they are governing. This was a serious concern for Sciences Po at the time. According to French paper Le Monde, between 1987 and 1997, the "proportion of children from the upper social classes" in the school went from 77% to 81.5% -- not quite the trend you want to see in our supposedly egalitarian and meritocratic age.

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Heather Horn is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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