IMG_1483One of the many things I love about France is the educational system. Reading about the college admissions scandal in the U.S. makes my blood boil, and I am all the more grateful to be in a completely different university universe. A sane one.

The university journey begins in high school, or lycée. France has just enacted an educational reform, changing the requirements for those who will graduate in 2021. But basically there are two streams: for those who plan to go to university and those who don’t. 

Those who don’t want to go to university (and I keep using the word university because collège in French is middle school, for 6th to 9th grades) have to take some basic classes for a good educational foundation—history, French, philosophy (ahem), physical education, math, civics and two—yes, TWO—foreign languages (the double foreign language requirement starts in 6th grade).IMG_1479Then they can take specialized classes to learn a trade, such as farming, many aspects of food service, transportation, sales, environmental work, etc. The students spend part of their days actually working as apprentices (a word that comes from apprendre—to learn) and are well-qualified when they graduate. This is considered a great outcome because such careers, even being a waiter, are honest and necessary work that earn a living wage. There is no shame in not going to university. These kids have several options, all of them with acronyms like STMG, ST2S, STHR, STI2D, STD2A, etc. One must be fluent in acronym when in France.

Those who want to go to university are split further into two streams: liberal arts and science types. The idea, again, is to prepare the students for the next step. Those who want to become engineers would have a strong foundation in sciences, for example. 

At the end of high school, the students must pass the baccalauréat, a gigantic written and oral test. You can finish high school and flunk the bac, but the bac is seen as a seal of approval, and students may take it again in an effort to pass. The bac is necessary for getting into university.IMG_1481There are three kind of higher education: universitiés, Grandes écoles, and specialized schools. Degrees are called licence (for a bachelor’s), master and doctorat. The Grandes écoles are considered the cream of the crop, very hard to get into, but in the sense of requiring great scores, and usually two years of rigorous preparatory courses. Universities, like France’s hospitals, are rather bare-bones compared to the U.S., lacking amenities like fancy gyms with climbing walls, water parks!!!!, movie theaters, etc. Just plain classrooms, with lots of students. The specialized schools are for things like commerce or management, such as the famous INSEAD. The universities tend not to rank very high globally because of faculty research citations, which punish papers that aren’t in English, and because of high student/faculty ratios.

Every French student who passed the bac gets into university. The test is given at the same time across the entire country, no private testing centers allowed. To get into scientific fields, you have to have passed the science bac, but otherwise it’s pretty open.IMG_5382Here’s how much it costs per year for French/EU students (international students are a different story):

For licence (bachelor’s) studies: €170, but poor families can get a reduction to €113.

Master: €243, reduced to €159.

Doctorat: €380, reduced to €253.

Ingénieur (engineer): €601

They also have to pay a student social security contribution of €90, which is waived for poor students. This is getting a new name but the amount stays the same.

Meal tickets are €3.25 a meal.IMG_1485Dorms are where French families face the big expense. There aren’t nearly enough dorm rooms, so students must find private lodging, something that has gotten squeezed by AirBnB, which offers landlords so much more money than students paying €400 a month for a one-bedroom apartment that’s empty during the summer.

Official dorm rooms range from 96 square feet with just a sink—bathrooms and kitchens are in common areas—to 150 square feet with a private shower, sink, fridge and microwave but shared toilets and kitchen; to studios up to 215 square feet with shower, toilet, sink, small kitchen and fridge. All furnished. They cost €200 to €500 a month.

So a year of university costs around €4,000 for room, €2,000 for board and a couple hundred for actual school fees.

The private schools, such as business schools, have low student/teacher ratios and cost much more. Tuition at the very respected HEC business school in Paris costs €15,100 a year for an MBA.IMG_1486Before you think that it’s a cakewalk to get a degree in France, students have to pass a gantlet of tests in order to continue. There is no way to finish if you skip class and just party. In fact, part of the reform of the bac stems from the fact that only 61% of students finish their degrees. Students aiming to become doctors may be filtered out in tests and have to choose a different career, perhaps still in medicine. Because it’s so rigorous, companies search for people who have gone to university for a year or two, even if they didn’t finish. You can see employment ads for BAC + 2, which means a bac plus two years of further education.

You can’t change your major between vastly different domains—something that’s possible in the U.S. 

Another difference with the U.S. is the sports aspect. As in, it doesn’t exist. No school teams, not in high school, not in university. It’s a place for studying. If you want to play sports, you join a club, which would be made up of kids from many different schools, and you would play against other clubs. No school spirit day. No crosstown rivalries. No Final Four (what sport is that anyway? Don’t tell me because I don’t care; I know of its existence only because I just saw a headline about it in the New York Times). IMG_1479No jocks, no cheerleaders. Also almost no fraternities or sororities. No corporate donors. Just taxes put to work.

You would think that in the U.S., with tuition such an incredible burden, kids would study their butts off. Certainly many do, but U.S. universities seem to be above all vast party machines. In France, the financial pressure is off and the kids are often living independently for the first time, so like young people everywhere they test their wings a bit; the bars around campuses are famously lively. But the constant testing is such that it’s up or out, and so French students pretty much keep their noses to the grindstone.

Feel free to talk smack below about the college admission scammers. As someone who got a perfect ACT in math and was in the top 1% nationally overall, I am disgusted by this group and hope the kids get kicked out and replaced with worthy students and the parents sent to prison. My own high school counselor pushed me to become a secretary, because with my good grades I would be hired immediately. She told me that I should forget about going to university on the East Coast, which was my dream, because my family couldn’t afford the plane fare, which was true. I informed her that I would become a boss, not a secretary, and indeed I did—and I had a secretary, who was a man. So much for Miss Norton’s stereotypes. I worked full-time in college (and finished in three years) because even though I had a full scholarship to a local state school, the fees and books still cost more than my parents could afford. I had zero fun, but I got a degree debt-free. I don’t think it would be possible to pull off today.IMG_5380I don’t know about you but I would rather drive over bridges designed by people who became engineers because they were smart and passionate about engineering, and be tended by doctors who are smart and passionate about caring for people, and so on, rather than by less-qualified, less-interested people who got into college because of legacy admissions or because their parents paid off the schools, in legal (well, legal is yet to be determined) or illegal ways. Remember the invasion of Grenada, to save the med students who were studying there because they weren’t able to get into med schools in the U.S.? When I was in the U.S. and saw on the list of in-network doctors some who had degrees from Grenada, I was horrified. Luckily, now I live in a place where all the doctors are in the network and I can pick whomever I want, assured that they are the crème de la crème. And my smart, ambitious kid will be able to continue studies without drowning in debt.

OK, have at it! I love your comments. Readers from other countries, tell us how your system works.IMG_1482


35 thoughts on “Open Admissions

  1. You’re preaching to my choir! This post, along with your previous one on health care, clearly illustrates the stark differences between the French and American systems. During my 36 years in the US, I was disappointed to see that education and health care got more and more inaccessible to “regular” folks. France is not perfect but, in these two areas, “y’ a pas photo”…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for this, it explains a lot about the French Educational system. How many movies, tv shows, books have I seen and read where the young people are incredibly stressed out by the “Bac”, where the “Grande Écoles” are discussed? Our system (US) has been so corrupted by money and influence that our current scandal was inevitable. I expect nothing will change.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Another point is that because the vast majority of higher education is funded by taxes, there’s no corrupting influence of trying to woo donors–which is why in the U.S. there are legacy admissions or the ability to buy admission for a mediocre kid by donating a few million.


        1. This is just sickening. It’s the same system happening in many sectors–private companies taking over what was once a public good, then making a fortune on the backs of people who can’t afford it. Plus, I bet they don’t have full-time professors but adjuncts–basically freelancers–who get paid a pittance per course. Once upon a time being a professor was a well-paid profession.


          1. Adjuncts are used in the US as a kind of well educated and cheap migrant labor force, where they may have to fight and scramble to get one or two courses to teach, for which they are paid a pittance (certainly not enough to justify the costs of the required Ph.D.), and for which there is no tenure track. Without tenure, they have no promise of job security, the kind of environment that leads to research and advances in the chosen field. And so on.

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  3. Private money should have nothing to do with education, just as it shouldn’t have anything to do with politics. Both systems can produce excellence, but it seems as though in the US the odds are stacked against poorer students, even if they are brighter than their richer peers. Ho hum…

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The scandal in the US is so horrifying on many levels. The marginally qualified entitled students that will perhaps someday be designing bridges, buildings and maybe working in the medical field does scare me a bit…..almost like a third world country….

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Here high schools are mostly named that, with the odd one having the title collegiate, but housing students from grades nine to twelve.

    Colleges in Canada are for what one would deem more practical, hands on education like nursing, agriculture, production, that sort of thing.

    Universities are more academically inclined, and can be quite specialized at times. My city has one college, two large universities, and two smaller universities that have some ties to the other larger universities.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Sigh — I just made a long comment which I suspect has disappeared into the ether. So frustrating. I’ll restate my case briefly…

    Point 1: The student debt in anglophone countries is now crippling and has a knock on effect economically.

    Point 2: Vocational studies are excellent here, and it’s good to see all the farmers kids going off to ag college. Social mobility remains low in France though, because it is still mainly the elites/upper classes who get into the really prestigious unis.

    Point 3: Med students often find themselves locked out of a place for second year. The solution is to switch stream to pharmacy or physiotherapy etc, which often turns out to be a blessing in disguise if my friends kids are anything to go by.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. The really frustrating thing is that there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to it. Somewhere in the works it will be some setting on your computer not getting on with some setting on my computer, but historically when I’ve tried to solve people’s commenting problems it has been impossible to identify the problem. If you *really* want to say something, email me 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  7. I’ve always wondered how the system in France and Europe in general worked. This was fascinating and I appreciate all the detail. I do agree that students should be allowed to excel at what they are best at—whether it be science, language arts or a trade. Thanks friend!


    Liked by 1 person

    1. If I had a complaint about the system it would be that they have to decide way too early. Some kids bumble through high school and then figure themselves out in university. In France, such kids would likely be put into a trade. Trades are wonderful, but think about people like Einstein, who was a patent clerk for a while. Happily for us, he got into physics.


  8. This is a very nice summary comparison–and such an important subject for French-American families. Our kids in France have had a decidedly mixed experience. They have moved on to American rather than French universities. You can filter my comments on the basis of this preference on our end.

    Since you point out the advantages of the French system, I’m turning my attention to the French downside–from our perspective: 1) many (not all, of course) rigid and less than encouraging K-12 teachers (While we appreciate the discipline, the lack of positivity is palpable, and often turns avid into reluctant students.) 2) more rather than less elitism among students and parents 3) seeming inflexible tracking of students into vocational *or* university 4) far more long-term dependence of students on parents, probably on account of higher unemployment rates in France.

    In addition, although our kids have attended good US private universities, where we were neither donors nor alumni, we are educators and big fans of US state universities as well: available scholarships and grants for the needy and/or excellent students, honors college options, reasonable tuition, academic rigor, and a healthy mix of student independence and accountability. Invariably, in our experience, students who graduate (especially 4-year graduates) spend due time at that grindstone.

    The admissions scandal in the US has been notably about parents who were not university-educated and who demonstrated their lack of value for education in the fact that they were less concerned about how their students performed academically than about having them admitted to grossly inappropriate schools for their children’s background. I mention this so that you do not despair over US higher education. In short, the scandal is about nutty people who, as we see it, do not value an educated life.

    Finally, we do agree that young people (as your experience attests) can be well educated on both sides of the Atlantic. Thanks for initiating another fertile discussion!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I agree wholeheartedly on the rigidity of the French system. Kids get pigeonholed very early. Plenty are late bloomers, and it’s too bad to lose out on their talents. In the U.S., the rigidity is around money; here it’s around preparing a foundation that is so intense you can’t change once you’ve started down the path.
      I know lots of people who have gotten their bachelor’s degrees after having been in the workplace for years, or even decades. I don’t know anybody in France who has done that.
      I have a lower opinion of U.S. state universities than you do, because I am disgusted that at too many of them the highest paid person is the football coach. The fact that schools have to run after donors is what leads to overspending on athletics and legacy admissions.
      The elitism in France is around les Grandes Écoles, which require two years of prep courses–something that could be a hardship in a family that needs a kid to be earning his own way as soon as possible. Class mobility seems tied in a way to the preference to stay close to family or to take over family businesses. A 2018 OECD study found that it takes six generations for a lower-class person to rise to middle-income, vs. five in the U.S. However, there’s much lower poverty in France.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. This insane trend toward exorbitantly paid coaches is a relatively new (1990s economic boom) and pernicious element in state university systems, but often it is the athletic programs and their donations that enhance enrollment and consequently state funding for the schools at large. I happen to be an avid college football fan, but there are a good number of Division I schools that surely have gone mad with buildings, grounds, amenities, and staffing for athletic programs–which, we must admit, are essentially football and basketball. (The Final Four is for NCAA basketball, btw. 😉 ) My alma mater has a lousy team, thus presently has not been sucked into this financial maelstrom. The university in my current town has a regular high profile athletic donor who has built as well a new library, law school, and multiple facilities.

        I agree with @Catherine Berry’s remarks about the well institutionalized and top-drawer music programs in universities across the US, providing a professional track that fuels local arts programs throughout the country. What you mentioned earlier, too, is the monumental importance of the broadly affordable US community college to abrogate potential inequalities in students’ K-12 education or 4-year higher education access. These students are often the quiet and unrecognized, yet brilliant, 18-year-olds who know their worth and work their way up the academic ladder, often toward magnificent success as they reach their destination. Community colleges, I would say, are the great equalizer.

        Liked by 1 person


    Liked by 1 person

  10. I found it HYSTERICAL that it came out that THE DONALD THREATENED the SCHOOL BOARD and his former college not to release HIS GRADES and TEST SCORES!!!!!WHO cares about a 70 plus year old mans school grades?!!I GUESS HE DIDNOT WANT TO BE EMBARRASSED!SAYS IT ALL RIGHT THERE TO ME!NOT A SMART MAN JUST A BULLY.
    I CANT STAND HIM CAN YOU TELL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I am a teacher and a parent and have watched my children learn in both the Australian and French school systems. There is no doubt in my mind that there is good and bad in both, but I will always remember my son’s surprise when we returned to Australia and he discovered that in primary school here he would have yoga, gardening, sport, music, assemblies, dance… to complement his reading and writing (at his French-Aus bilingual school)…a completely different experience to that at his French school. On the other hand, having benefitted from a free university education myself, I am saddened by the debt that my children are incurring at university here. They are working long, late hours to pay just for the living, not the tuition. That remains a debt to be carried into their adult lives.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s interesting. My kid didn’t do yoga in primary school, but most certainly did gardening, sports, music and dance, plus all those incredible school trips–skiing, the beach, rock climbing, spelunking. I think in general the French system is too much about rote and not enough about analysis. But that changes fast–in secondary there’s lots of writing, rhetoric and analysis.


  12. I find your post fascinating, and I am always in awe in the depth of knowledge my French friends tap into in everyday conversations (art, history, and philosophy on a regular basis). I wonder how I would have done if I had been a student in France. I HATED school (except for English Lit, Biology and Music), and was terrible in tests, so I suspect I would have been one of the kids put in the non-academic track. But what I was was a musician, and I ended up performing at one of the top opera companies in the world. Where would someone like myself have fit into this system? Is Music and Art a completely non-academic field of study in the lower grades? Do you do that outside of school like athletics? My parents could not afford private lessons, so all my early music training (before University) was in school. I love reading your blog, always so much to think about!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, you can do an optional bac in art and music. There also are classes outside school. Even little Carcassonne has a conservatory, with classes for drama, music and dance, which costs €324 a year for secondary students. Many such programs are subsidized by local governments. My kid took piano at a village music school (violin, guitar and drums also available), with half an hour a week of private lessons and half an hour a week of group solfège, or theory, for €20 a YEAR.


  13. Wow, second attempt (for some reason, my comments on your blog always get lost in space before I can hit send!): Anyway, was saying that both of my kids (science majors) ended up going abroad for their post-secondary education. I was happy about this as the French ‘facs’ seemed to be known equally for ‘gavage’ (stuffing the students full of info but not teaching them out-of-the-box thinking) and large classes with a complete lack of personal instruction. I do wish I’d had an informative and well-documented post like this back then to help me understand their choices! Well done!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Did they go in the U.S. or in the U.K./Canada? The difference in prices is huge. And I don’t recall much personal instruction at my state university in the U.S. I think there’s much to be improved in the French system, but at least it’s open to all students.

      Liked by 1 person

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