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In this series, an American in Paris pits the French welfare state against the U.S. market economy in five key categories: childbirth and health care, preschool, higher education, immigration, and shopping. Read all the entries in the series here.
Are you a planner or a dreamer? Professionally speaking, which would you value more: job security or the freedom to change careers? And which of these would you find more stressful: taking a test or being in debt?
If you’re a planner, if you’re comfortable with compromise, and if you’re uncomfortable with debt, then the French system of higher education may be for you. But if you believe it’s never too late to start over, stick with American universities.
If you can afford them, that is. Rising tuition rates in the U.S. have outpaced inflation for the past 30 years. The average annual tuition cost at a private university in 2013 was $30,094, and $8,893 at public four-year institutions. Inflation-adjusted rates from 1971 are about a third of those costs: $10,515 and $2,456, respectively. As a result, seven in 10 college seniors in America now graduate with student loan debt, at an average that’s close to $30,000.
To Americans, these kinds of stats are depressingly familiar. In France, though, student loan debt is an alien concept. Fewer than 2 percent of students in France take out loans to pay for their education. The idea that you might have to take out loans is met with disbelief. The vast majority of universities here are publicly funded, with tuition rates set by the government. These public universities, among them the Sorbonne in Paris, cost an average of 183 euros per year for a licence, the three-year French equivalent of an undergraduate degree.
The problem here isn’t with the cost of the education, but with the huge amount of tracking, testing, and winnowing that is used to help keep the system free. In America, virtually anyone can get a college education so long as they have the money to pay for it. In France, you can get an excellent, free or nearly-free education but often only if you follow a prescribed set of rules and pass a series of grueling tests that often start early in high school.
French teenagers go through their first major career sorting at around age 15, when they decide on an academic or vocational course of study. This choice determines what kind of high-school graduation exam, or baccalauréat, the student will sit for, and to some extent what kind of higher education is open to them. The choice of track is also not entirely up to the students; the head of their lycée, or high school, has the final say. There’s some ability to change tracks, but it’s not particularly easy.
The baccalauréat exam is very different from American standardized tests like the SAT. Instead of a single afternoon, the bac is a weeklong process that includes written and oral tests in everything from French literature to math to philosophy. And unlike the SAT, the bac is the sole factor that determines whether a French student will graduate from lycée; grades and extracurricular activities are not considered.
Though the bac is stressful for French 18-year-olds, passage guarantees them entry to any of France’s free public universities. However, there’s a second, more elite tier of schools in France: the grandes écoles, France’s version of the Ivy League. They’re extremely difficult to get into—most have acceptance rates under 10 percent—and offer incredible rewards to those who graduate: a recent study by French sociologists François-Xavier Dudouet and Hervé Joly found that a stunning 84 percent of executives at France’s top 40 companies were graduates of a grande école. Contrast this with the U.S., where only about 10 percent of top executives at 100 top companies graduated from Ivy League schools, and you have a sense of the hierarchy that exists in France—a country that supposedly executed its ruling class more than 200 years ago.
Ironically, the first grandes écoles were established after the French Revolution as an egalitarian means of training the talented sons and daughters of the middle class. They’ve evolved into a powerful proving ground. Among the major grandes écoles are Ecole normale supérieure (abbreviated to ENS, and the only one of France’s university’s to make it into the top 100 internationally), which trains scientists and academics; Polytechnique, which trains largely scientists and engineers; and the business schools HEC and ESSEC. Above these sits ENA, the École nationale d’administration, which takes top graduates of grandes écoles and trains them for high-level government positions. The school only graduates 100 students per year, yet it’s so dominant that it counts two former French presidents and the current president, François Hollande, among its alumni.* By U.S. standards, the grandes écoles are a bargain—ENS and Polytechnique even pay their students a monthly stipend to attend. In return, students are expected to work for the state for several years after graduation (though ENS is trying to eliminate this requirement).
After passing the bac, most aspirants to a grande école attend a cours préparatoire; commonly known as a prépas: two years of intense study in their chosen field. At the end of the prépas they sit for the concours, another entrance test that is nationally ranked and will determine which grande école, if any, they will attend. Though the public prépas are designed to be affordable for all, they are also extremely competitive, and there’s very little in the way of college counseling in France. Here and elsewhere, the process can be opaque, and it privileges those who come from families who know the process.
The privileging of the grandes écoles over the public university system is also reflected in education spending, with the state spending just 6,700 euros per public university student per year but up to 13,000 euros per student at a grande école, even though elite schools train only 5 percent of students.
Meanwhile, at France’s open-enrollment public universities, the dropout and failure rate after the first year is close to 50 percent. The most competitive majors, such as law and medicine, cull their student lists with more brutal testing. Future French doctors must pass a government-regulated subject test after their first year of college—a test for which the initial failure rate is 90 percent. Many students take the entire year a second time, but even these redoublants have an 80 percent failure rate. (The French minister of education is trying to implement reforms that redirect the weakest students into other professions after their first semester.)
People who want to be doctors or lawyers often retake the first year several times, in hopes of passage—each time, costing the government more money. The Ministry of Education would like to limit the number of times these tests can be taken. In a way, this makes sense—the government is paying to train the doctors, they want to make the decisions about who will and won’t progress in the profession. But of course, there are other skills that go into being a doctor besides the ability to pass a government exam. The French system works beautifully if you’re extremely focused from a very early age, work well under pressure, and are great at taking tests. It works less well if you’re not sure at age 16 exactly what you might want to do with your life, or if your family members and peers aren’t already familiar with the system. The lack of flexibility in the French system is a contributing factor in the high youth unemployment in the country, currently at about 25 percent. These carefully constructed career tracks may lead nowhere if students can’t change course without unnecessary penalties.
On the other hand, that kind of freedom of choice comes with a huge price tag in the United States. Is it better to tell a student at age 20 that the state will not pay for him to become a doctor, as they might in France—or let him pay to become one and accrue an average of $170,000 in personal debt, as we do in the U.S.? I know I wouldn’t have the career I have today if I’d grown up in France—I would probably be a lawyer, as my parents initially wished. But I also wouldn’t have racked up $30,000 in student loan debt, which is enough money to make a dreamer into a planner.
Correction, Feb. 7, 2014: A previous version of this article misstated how many former French presidents attended ENA; it was two, not three.
Children at Swedish “gender-neutral” preschools are less likely to gender-stereotype
A new study from Uppsala University in Sweden has indicated that the norm-conscious practices used by teachers at preschools termed “gender-neutral” are associated with reductions in children’s tendencies to make gender-stereotypical assumption. The practices are also associated with children’s increased interest in playing with unfamiliar peers of the opposite sex.
A number of Swedish preschools have attracted international attention for their pedagogical practices aimed at reducing differences in the opportunities available to children of different genders. These practices include de-emphasising gender differences, for example by using the recently coined Swedish gender-neutral pronoun, and avoiding behaviour towards children that traditionally would be gender specific, for example not complimenting girls on their clothes.
Despite this international interest, till now there was no study evaluating the effects of these practices on children’s behaviour by comparing them with children attending more traditional preschools but matched in other demographic factors.
When shown pictures of unfamiliar peers by the researchers, children attending a gender-neutral preschool made fewer gender-stereotyped assumptions about them, and were less likely to show no interest in playing with them when they were of the opposite sex.
Because gender-neutral schools are rare even in Sweden, the sample size was small, meaning that although there is statistical confidence in the effects’ existence, it is not possible to estimate with confidence how strong they are. Children’s families had chosen the preschools their children attended, raising the issue of whether differences in family background caused the effects. However, when families who reported choosing their preschools because of gender-related aspects of pedagogy were removed from the sample, the effects remained.
Children at the gender-neutral preschool were not less likely to notice the gender of unfamiliar children, however.
‘Together the results suggest that although gender-neutral pedagogy on its own may not reduce children’s tendency to use gender to categorise people, it reduces their tendency to gender-stereotype and gender-segregate, which could widen the opportunities available to them’, says Dr. Ben Kenward, researcher at Uppsala University and Oxford Brookes University.
The work was carried out by the Uppsala Child and Baby Lab in collaboration with researchers from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, USA, and Oxford Brookes University, UK, and is published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology (“Early preschool environments and gender: Effects of gender pedagogy in Sweden”, Shutts et al., 2017.).
The administration would channel part of the savings into its top priority: school choice. It seeks to spend about $400 million to expand charter schools and vouchers for private and religious schools, and another $1 billion to push public schools to adopt choice-friendly policies.
President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have repeatedly said they want to shrink the federal role in education and give parents more opportunity to choose their children’s schools.
The documents — described by an Education Department employee as a near-final version of the budget expected to be released next week — offer the clearest picture yet of how the administration intends to accomplish that goal.
Though Trump and DeVos are proponents of local control, their proposal to use federal dollars to entice districts to adopt school-choice policies is reminiscent of the way the Obama administration offered federal money to states that agreed to adopt its preferred education policies through a program called Race to the Top.
The proposed cuts in longstanding programs — and the simultaneous new investment in alternatives to traditional public schools — are a sign of the Trump administration’s belief that federal efforts to improve education have failed. DeVos, who has previously derided government, is now leading an agency she views as an impediment to progress.
“It’s time for us to break out of the confines of the federal government’s arcane approach to education,” DeVos said this month in Salt Lake City. “Washington has been in the driver’s seat for over 50 years with very little to show for its efforts.”
The proposed budget would also reshape financial aid programs that help 12 million students pay for college.
A White House official said Wednesday it would be premature to comment on any aspect of “ever-changing, internal discussion” about the president’s budget prior to its publication. “The president and his Cabinet are working collaboratively to create a leaner, more efficient government that does more with less of taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars,” the official said.
The Education Department had no immediate comment.
The budget proposal calls for a net $9.2 billion cut to the department, or 13.6 percent of the spending level Congress approved last month. It is likely to meet resistance on Capitol Hill because of strong constituencies seeking to protect current funding, ideological opposition to vouchers and fierce criticism of DeVos, a longtime Republican donor who became a household name during a bruising Senate confirmation battle.
Asked for comment, a spokesman for Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate education committee, referred to Alexander’s response in March to the release of Trump’s budget outline. That statement emphasized that while the president may suggest a budget, “under the Constitution, Congress passes appropriations bills.”
Under the administration’s budget, two of the department’s largest expenditures in K-12 education, special education and Title I funds to help poor children, would remain unchanged compared to federal funding levels in the first half of fiscal 2017. However, high-poverty schools are likely to receive fewer dollars than in the past because of a new law that allows states to use up to 7 percent of Title I money for school improvement before distributing it to districts.
The cuts would come from eliminating at least 22 programs, some of which Trump outlined in March. Gone, for example, would be $1.2 billion for after-school programs that serve 1.6 million children, most of whom are poor, and $2.1 billion for teacher training and class-size reduction.
The documents obtained by The Post — dated May 23, the day the president’s budget is expected to be released — outline the rest of the cuts, including a $15 million program that provides child care for low-income parents in college; a $27 million arts education program; two programs targeting Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students, totaling $65 million; two international education and foreign language programs, $72 million; a $12 million program for gifted students; and $12 million for Special Olympics education programs.
Other programs would not be eliminated entirely, but would be cut significantly. Those include grants to states for career and technical education, which would lose $168 million, down 15 percent compared to current funding; adult basic literacy instruction, which would lose $96 million (down 16 percent); and Promise Neighborhoods, an Obama-era initiative meant to built networks of support for children in needy communities, which would lose $13 million (down 18 percent).
The Trump administration would dedicate no money to a fund for student support and academic enrichment that is meant to help schools pay for, among other things, mental-health services, anti-bullying initiatives, physical education, Advanced Placement courses and science and engineering instruction. Congress created the fund, which totals $400 million this fiscal year, by rolling together several smaller programs. Lawmakers authorized as much as $1.65 billion, but the administration’s budget for it in the next fiscal year is zero.
The cuts would make space for investments in choice, including $500 million for charter schools, up 50 percent over current funding. The administration also wants to spend $250 million on “Education Innovation and Research Grants,” which would pay for expanding and studying the impacts of vouchers for private and religious schools. It’s not clear how much would be spent on research versus on the vouchers themselves.
There is currently only one federally funded voucher program, in the District of Columbia. A recent Education Department analysis of that program found that after a year in private school, voucher recipients performed worse on standardized tests than their counterparts who remained in public school.
The administration would devote $1 billion in Title I dollars meant for poor children to a new grant program (called Furthering Options for Children to Unlock Success, or FOCUS) for school districts that agree to allow students to choose which public school they attend — and take their federal, state and local dollars with them.
The goal is to do away with neighborhood attendance zones that the administration says trap needy kids in struggling schools. The documents cite Minneapolis (where parents can choose which city school their children attend) and Hartford, Conn. (where students can cross city-suburban lines to attend school) as examples.
But the notion of allowing Title I dollars to follow the student — known as “portability” — is a controversial idea that the Republican-led Senate rejected in 2015. Many Democrats argue that it is a first step toward private-school vouchers and would siphon dollars from schools with high poverty to those in more affluent neighborhoods.
Leaders of historically black colleges and universities had sought an increase in federal funding for their institutions. The administration’s budget proposal would hold funding flat compared to spending levels over the first half of fiscal 2017.
The administration is also seeking to overhaul key elements of federal financial aid. The spending proposal would maintain funding for Pell Grants for students in financial need, but it would eliminate more than $700 million in Perkins loans for disadvantaged students; nearly halve the work-study program that helps students work their way through school, cutting $490 million; take a first step toward ending subsidized loans, for which the government pays interest while the borrower is in school; and end loan forgiveness for public servants.
The loan forgiveness program, enacted in 2007, was designed to encourage college graduates to pursue careers as social workers, teachers, public defenders or doctors in rural areas. There are at least 552,931 people on track to receive the benefit, with the first wave of forgiveness set for October. It’s unclear how the proposed elimination would affect those borrowers.
The administration also wants to replace five income-driven student loan repayment plans with a single plan.
That change would likely benefit many undergraduate borrowers, who currently can have the balance of their loan forgiven after paying 10 percent of their income for 20 years. Trump’s proposal — which makes good on a campaign promise — would raise the maximum payment to 12.5 percent of income, but shorten the payment period to 15 years.
The proposal is less sweet for borrowers who take out loans to earn advanced degrees. They currently pay monthly bills capped at 10 percent of income for 25 years. Under the new plan, they’d pay more (12.5 percent of income) for longer (30 years).
There were no estimates on how much the government would save by eliminating public-service loan forgiveness, overhauling the income-based repayment plans and ending subsidized loans.
The spending plan supports year-round Pell Grants, which allow low-income students to use the money for three semesters of college, instead of two. That way, students can take a full load of courses year-round and earn a degree faster. The administration also would increase available funds for year-round Pell by $16.3 billion over 10 years.
Still, the maximum annual award would remain flat at $5,920. And without any directive to index the award to inflation, that ceiling might remain in place for the foreseeable future.
Despite that increase, the agency workforce would decline by about 150 positions, or 4 percent.
The staffing decline at the department’s Office for Civil Rights — which is dealing with a large increase in discrimination complaints — would be steeper.
Trump is seeking $106.8 million for the civil rights office, unchanged from the funding level over the first half of fiscal 2017. But — thanks to a recent bump from Congress — the proposed total is $1.7 million less than the office is now receiving. The spending proposal would result in the loss of more than 40 of roughly 570 positions.