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Do diversity programs at elite universities really help students?

Yes, but they’re not a silver bullet, says a new research paper analysing the outcomes of a positive discrimination scheme at an elite French Grande École.  

The paper, which was authored by Professor Agnès van Zanten and published by the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), found that the program brought “important benefits” to the majority of its graduates, who would have otherwise been set back in careers, perhaps even not graduating, “and ultimately obtained less well-paid and prestigious jobs.”

Van Zanten analysed the conventions éducation prioritaire (CEP), a program run by the French university Sciences Po from 2001 to 2020. The program involved selecting and training students from disadvantaged secondary schools for competitive admission (against each other) to the university.

Although many program graduates went on to achieve professional success, van Zanten notes that the students faced barriers, aside from academic ones, that came with their social standing; lacking in “especially economic capital, embodied cultural capital, and social capital, but also because of discrimination processes,” on account of “tokenism”.

Self-segregation as a result of these, “reinforced by the tendency among many CEP graduates to avoid involvement in student union extracurricular activities except those closely related to their ethno- racial background,” further reinforced their otherness from the non-CEP students.

Students who benefited from the CEP sometimes had a difficult to relationship with the scheme. One said that his CEP association saw him being an “embodiment of Republican meritocracy” to recruiters – but whilst some were happy to play “the ‘diversity card’ when applying for jobs”, in van Zanten’s words, others felt embarrassed. “I always made it a point of honour to make sure no one could imagine I’d got into Sciences Po via the conventions, because I was worried, precisely, about people’s negative bias,” one candidate said.

A foot in the door, however, might not necessarily be enough to climb a mountain. “Despite the very significant advantage of possessing a degree from an elite [school], non-traditional graduates continue to lack the capitals necessary for them to obtain certain jobs and especially to be promoted to the most desirable positions,” van Zanten concluded.

Nonetheless, CEP graduates interviewed were generally happy with their situation. One called her degree the “crown on [her] head”. As van Zanten said herself, “Sciences Po’s new admission scheme has brought important benefits to the majority of CEP graduates.”

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AUTHORZeno Toulon

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