One French School's Secret for Making Affirmative Action Work

But did the Sciences Po program, to erode the upper class's iron grip on the school by importing more students from humbler backgrounds, actually work? There's limited evidence that it did, at least on a small scale. Only 860 students have been admitted to Sciences Po through the disadvantaged-student channel since its establishment. That said, students on scholarship now represent 26% of the student body relative to an earlier 6%, and Le Figaro, which reported these numbers, also found that the current proportion of students from the upper classes is 68%, a marked drop from the 1990s.

And the students appear to be excelling. Last fall, Sciences Po's Center for the Americas head, Peter Gumbel, told The New York Times that the dropout rate "is marginal," with roughly 90% of the students admitted through the special channel graduating after three years and 63% fully employed after graduation -- seven percentage points above average for the school as a whole. In other words, the disadvantaged students are more likely to secure full-time work, even at a time when the French economy is suffering, than their average peer at this elite-dominated school.

Those results are even more impressive when you compare them to U.C. San Diego's affirmative action program, as reported in an academic journal article  in 2005. Students admitted under the university's affirmative action programs earned GPAs that were, on average, 0.30 points lower than non-affirmative action students; only 57% graduated, as compared to 73% of non-affirmative action students. The study noted, "when compared to students just above the regular admissions cutoff, the differences are smaller," but conceded that the results were still there and still negative. Sciences Po's success could be due to what has been billed as an aggressive tutoring program for its affirmative action students. It could be due to Sciences Po simply being a more elite school with more resources at its disposal. It could also be due, as Descoings himself suggested last fall, to the admissions program's search for "intellectual potential, rather than just performance on exams" (a lesson for education in general, perhaps).

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In the wake of Descoing's death, tributes have been pouring in from Sciences Po students. Among them have been those affirmative action students. tOne French journalist who spoke to some of them reported that every one "recognizes that the entry to Sciences Po has changed the course of their lives." They also reported feeling that they suffer from being overly identified with the affirmative action program, however.

These students are a major part of Descoing's legacy; a high-profile demonstration of an affirmative action program that appears to bear few of the usual flaws associated with such efforts. Whether he capitalized, as critics allege, on the program in the media is irrelevant, so long as the results haven't been falsified. 

For citizens of France or America or any other country to think through how they feel about affirmative action, they need prominent cases where the statistical interference -- students who are given a leg up in admission, then denied sufficient support in their new environment, for example -- can be filtered out. And for supporters of affirmative action, Sciences Po offers a tantalizing suggestion that you really can have it both ways: high standards and affirmative action-driven diversity. If Descoings was right, Sciences Po has been selecting students based on their potential performance rather than current performance, which after all is colored by their environment, which is itself a product of factors such as class and race. That also means the school has been snatching up underprivileged students who are, aside from the handicaps of their background, just as smart as the students admitted through the regular process.

That alone is not going to bring down the legal barriers to some forms of affirmative action in the United States. Nor should it, necessarily. And, frankly, until there's a larger sample size, the jury is probably still out even on the successes at Sciences Po. But it's hard to find a better case for stimulating discussion or providing policy models and anti-models. Given America's current preoccupation with social stratification, identity politics, and the ultra-privileged, it's hard not to agree with Descoings' and Sciences Po's general point: we could all stand to confront  "the otherness of those who have a different cultural and social origin."

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

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