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.