An Ocean Apart: Price Tags and Priorities in Higher Education

The prestigious École des Ponts (ParisTech), a grande école in the French capital. Photo: Magnus the Great for Wikimedia Commons.

The prestigious École des Ponts (ParisTech), a grande école in the French capital. Photo: Magnus the Great for Wikimedia Commons.

Forty-six percent. That’s the percent of students in the United States who enroll in a four-year university, but have still not gotten their degree after six years of schooling. Much of the debate surrounding that figures is centered around the enormous cost of higher education in the United States.

Since 1981, college tuition rates in the U.S. have increased faster than the national inflation rate, leaving many students with crippling debt, regardless of whether they achieve their degree. The average tuition price for private universities in 2013 is some $30,094 annually, and $8,893 for public four-year institutions, according to the U.S. College Board. Compare those figures with inflation-adjusted rates from 1971– $10,515 and $2,456, respectively. Today, student loans make up the largest portion of individual debt—second only to mortgages overall—among adults under the age of 35.

And yet, despite the rising costs, people in the United States are attending college in unprecedented numbers. Nearly 3.2 million more people enrolled in higher education in 2011 than in 2006, according to numbers reported by the New York Times. Today’s society places a heavy emphasis on getting a four-year college degree, despite—or perhaps because of—economic difficulties. In light of the current job market and global economic downturn, people in the United States are looking at the college tuition bill and asking themselves, “is it worth it?” Statistics say that they are responding with an overwhelming “yes.”

This substantial investment—and ensuing debt—may seem to be a peculiar sacrifice to students attending university in countries with a state-funded higher education system such as France. In France, a licence (three-year degree) costs an average of €183 per year, where a doctorate degree (eight-year program) costs €388 for the 2013-14 academic year, according to the education advocacy group Campus France. Of the 2.2 million students currently enrolled in France’s university system, around eighty percent attend these public institutions.

But this low cost of tertiary education comes with its own difficulties, many derived from the attitude of university students towards their place in the education system. Because education is so accessible and affordable, requiring passage of the national baccalauréate exam or “le bac,” as it is often referred to, some students take their college-level education less seriously, especially compared to their American counterparts who are footing large tuition bills.

“The system is very much built to make you work on your own,” comments Camille, a 21 year-old student in one of Paris’ top engineering schools. “You are accountable for yourself, and I have seen many of my friends from childhood leave school, because they simply found it not worth the effort.”

This open access to university results in a large drop-out and failure rate, a trend that is sometimes perpetuated by professors and administrators in order to retain only those students with the drive to continue their education, and to weed-out numbers from the nation’s over-crowded public schools.

France’s higher education system also has its own forms of socio-economic stratification, partly stemming from the existence of the “grandes écoles” system. The grandes écoles are a group of higher-level institutions that offer a highly specialized and highly prestigious education. Unlike elite undergraduate institutions in the United States, such as the Ivy League, the grandes écoles require the completion of an additional two years of preparatory classes directly after lycée, followed by the successful completion of competitive exams, after which only some students are admitted.

The element of education stratification comes from a difference not only in tuition costs, ranging from €500 to €10,000 (some grandes écoles are private), but also from the costs associated with preparation for admittance. Grandes écoles are very competitive, and adequate preparation for the exams and coursework often requires the assistance of hired tutors, and attendance at premier lycées for one’s secondary education. Depending on the region of France, the best lycées are typically private institutions, drawing mostly from the upper and upper-middle classes.

Camille attends one of the grandes écoles geared towards civil engineering, the prestigious École des Ponts (ParisTech), literally the “School of Bridges.” Noting that she came from a family of engineers, working both managerial and technical positions, she commented that many students at her school “have parents who are either teachers or professionals in their field.”

“You must either have some help in the practical material—which you start to specialize in soon after entering lycée—or have a parent who knows the system here,” Camille adds.

These grandes écoles go on to train the so-called “best and brightest” of France’s youth, cultivating the country’s young politicians, premier scientists, and aspiring executives. Such a system results in something of a cycle– despite the general access to tertiary education, the system still serves to prop up socioeconomic divisions, with the upper tier of France’s economic classes continually being fed into the highest power and highest paying jobs.

“Classes are difficult here,” Camille adds, “but there is not the number of students leaving school as there are at many of the public universities in Paris. We have worked too hard to get here, and we know that there are top jobs awaiting us when we graduate—we just have to get there.”

There is no clear answer to the high rate of attrition in France, just as there is no clear answer to solving the issue of high tuition costs in the United States. But it is clear that both countries want to turn out the most talented students. In the U.S., Michelle Obama has started a new campaign stressing the importance of a college degree, and in France, heavy federal funding of post-secondary education continues. Perhaps the two models have something to learn from each other.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Forty-six percent. That’s the percent of students in the United States who enroll in a four-year university, but have still not gotten their degree after six years of schooling. Much of the debate surrounding that figures is centered around the enormous cost of higher education in the United States. Read more about the differences between higher education systems. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: