STRASBOURG, France—One school has been the cradle of the French establishment for decades, grooming future presidents, prime ministers and chief executives.
Now, one of its most illustrious alumni, President Emmanuel Macron, wants to shut his alma mater, the École Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, an institution that has become a symbol of France’s close-knit elite and persistent class divide.
Mr. Macron aims to placate yellow-vest protesters who have bedeviled his government for months, accusing him of paying too little heed to the economic pain of the working and rural class.
ENA has become a particular target, along with its graduates, known as énarques.
The president’s proposal comes at the end of months of high-profile public debates he organized in response to the demonstrations.
“We need to abolish ENA,” Mr. Macron said in April.
The school’s closure would be part of a broader push to overhaul France’s education system for high-ranking civil servants in an effort to improve opportunities for the underprivileged. Mr. Macron has pledged “to build something new that works better,” but hasn’t provided further details.
ENA was designed as a meritocracy to open better opportunities to all students regardless of their background. But critics say the school has become a breeding ground for cronyism, perpetuating a social pecking order that allows énarques to monopolize top positions in society. They run the prime minister’s office, the finance ministry, the central bank, two of the highest courts and many top private-sector companies. Three of France’s past four presidents are graduates of the two-year program.
“It’s a very French hypocrisy. The system is egalitarian on paper but unequal in practice,” said Jean-Pascal Lanuit, a senior official at the culture ministry and a former ENA student.
But many believe shutting ENA won’t change an elitist culture perpetuated by a two-tier education system. On one side, there are highly competitive institutions known as grandes écoles, public and private schools that are akin to the U.S. Ivy League schools, including engineering school École Polytechnique and business school HEC Paris.
On the other are universities open to almost everyone, but with sometimes crowded classrooms and crumbling facilities.
ENA was founded after World War II to better train high-ranking civil servants and open top government positions that had been reserved for “wealthy students living in Paris,” according to a 1945 government document. The creation was orchestrated by the then-general secretary of the French communist party, under Charles de Gaulle’s temporary government.
Tuition is free and students receive a monthly stipend to pay for books and housing.
But critics say ENA counts few students from rural, low-income families, and most current students are young white men.
The main reason, critics say, is the growing inequality of the French education system. Indeed, most ENA students have attended France’s top high schools and one of the best preparatory classes for the entrance exam. As a result, instead of promoting social mobility, the system ends up subsidizing the education of the rich with taxpayers’ money.
Many ENA students come from similar neighborhoods and attended the same schools. “I knew almost everyone there when I arrived in school,” said Florian Paret, a 27-year-old Parisian and second-year student at ENA, who graduated from the elite Paris Institute of Political Studies.
There are fewer opportunities for social advancement today compared with 40 years ago, said Ségolène Royal, a former minister and socialist candidate for the 2007 presidential elections who attended ENA and graduated in 1980.
“I’m not sure that it would have been possible for me today to follow the same path because there’s a kind of state aristocracy that has established itself,” said Ms. Royal, who came from a middle-income family in eastern France, recently. While at ENA, she met François Hollande, who would become her long-term partner and French president.
Once inside ENA, competition is fierce because top-ranked students can cherry-pick the most prestigious government posts upon graduation, including working at France’s highest courts or powerful state auditing bodies.
“Competition is part of the school’s DNA,” said Alexandre Allegret-Pilot, 30, who had degrees in biology, law and business before entering ENA.
After they graduate, énarques must work for the government for at least 10 years. If they leave earlier, they need to partly reimburse the school for tuition; usually private companies that hire young énarques pay back ENA as part of the hiring compensation.
Today, more former students move between the private and public sectors, deepening the perception that énarques monopolize top positions. After joining the state auditing body, Mr. Macron worked for private bank Rothschild & Cie. from 2008 to 2012, before moving back to government.
The vast majority of énarques, however, work for the government for their entire career. Few actually run for office, even if the school is known for producing presidents and ministers.
“ENA is being used as a scapegoat,” said Joachim Bitterlich, a former German diplomat and member of ENA’s board, who graduated in 1974.
More recently, ENA, which accepts a few international students a year, has sought to broaden its student body, notably by creating preparatory classes for the entrance exam for students from underprivileged areas.
“ENA can change,” said Daniel Keller, who heads the alumni association. “But I’m all for preserving the ENA brand. It’s a label that has value.”
It will be up to Frédéric Thiriez, an énarque Mr. Macron chose in April to lead the overhaul of France’s civil servants’ training.
Even if ENA were to close, it isn’t clear if that will be enough to appease the yellow vests.
“That’s secondary,” said Theo Feugueur, a 19-year-old law student in the Paris region, who takes part in yellow-vest protests every Saturday. “He should abolish all the grandes écoles.”
Transcript00:07it’s a real pleasure to be here I’m I00:10was I’m acutely conscious of the fact as00:13I listened both to a previous speaker00:15and also the ones before that everyone00:18has been speaking about very00:19consequential and high-minded things00:21this morning and I’m not going to do00:23that00:23Oh in fact I intend to give what I’m00:27sure will be the most solipsistic talk00:30ever at a Google zeitgeist I simply why00:33want to talk about why on earth I00:35decided to say yes and come here here’s00:41a situation I am a writer part of what I00:44do to make my living is I go and give00:46speeches at conferences like this and I00:49get paid right as one would and it’s00:55that money that I use to to make my00:58living so how much is google paying me01:00for this zero it’s a company with what01:0450 billion dollars in the bank and they01:06don’t have a dime for poor little old01:08Malcolm now we could talk at length01:11about what this says about Google but I01:14that’s not what interests me what01:16interests me is what that says about me01:19why on earth would I say yes I’m just01:22such a circumstance why you know I’m I’m01:25busy my time is really valuable I why01:29did I fly all the way out here across01:32the country to give away my intellectual01:34property for free in fact wasn’t even01:37free I had to print out my speech this01:39morning in the business center and I was01:42just the bill cost me nine dollars and01:4587 cents it’s costing me to be here01:49now you can say that I came here because01:52there’s all kinds of interesting people01:53here which is true but it you know I01:56don’t mean to cast any aspersions any01:58aspersions on any of you but my life is02:00lousy with interesting people I got more02:02interesting people that I know too so02:04you could say well maybe I should have02:05come here I should come here because I02:06can make contacts that will help me you02:09know in the business world I’m not in02:10the business world I don’t need to meet02:12a VC I work out of my apartment if I02:15want to renovate my kitchen I’ll just go02:17to the bank for a loan02:18there’s no it doesn’t make any sense in02:20other words for for me to be here so why02:24did I say yes well the answer is that02:27that this conference is run by Google02:29one of the most prestigious and02:32successful companies in the world I02:35would not have agreed to speak for free02:37of a yahoo conference would I right so02:43in other words my decision to do02:46something that is not in my best02:47interest was caused by my association02:51with an elite institution and this is02:54what I want to talk about today it’s an02:57argument that I make in my new book02:58David and Goliath which in further proof03:01of how baffling my decision was to come03:03here is not available for sale at this03:05conference I like to call this problem03:10elite institution cognitive disorder or03:13OCD and it’s simply that elite03:17institutions screw us up in all kinds of03:19ways that were not always conscious of03:23and since the theme of this morning’s03:25session is imagine about a world I want03:27to try and imagine what the world would03:29look like if we freed ourselves of a03:32scourge of a ICD so I’m going to give03:36you a couple of examples of the ICD in03:38action the but let me start with a very03:42thorny question of of science and math03:46science and math education in this03:48country stem as we call it we have a03:51problem in turning out enough science03:53and math graduates right in this country03:56and it’s not for lack of interest by the03:58way among high school seniors lots and04:01lots and lots of high school seniors04:02want to04:03science in math degrees but04:04approximately half of them drop out by04:07the end of their second year so we have04:09a persistence problem in science and04:11math education in this country so the04:14question is why why does so many kids04:16drop out well the obvious answer is that04:18science and math are really hard and you04:22need to have a certain level of04:23cognitive ability to master those04:25subjects and we don’t have enough smart04:27kids right so so if you if that’s true04:34if science and math education is a04:37function of we should be able to see in04:40the statistics that persistence is a04:42function of your cognitive ability right04:44so let’s take a look I have Butler this04:46is the first time in my life I’ve ever04:48used PowerPoint this is like fantastic04:50moment for me I feel like I finally04:52joined the 20th century it’s really kind04:54of amazing04:55oh wow okay so this is a this is I’ve05:00just chosen Hartwick College as a proxy05:03for American colleges for totally random05:06reasons Hardwick is a small liberal arts05:08college in upstate New York and what we05:10have here is a distribution of math SAT05:13scores by among the people who are05:16intending to major in science and math05:19and what you can see is that there is05:21quite a wide range of native math05:25ability among the kids entering the05:28freshmen stem programs at Hardwick right05:31so what we would so what do we see when05:33we when we look at the who ends up05:36graduating with a stem degree what we05:39see is that at Hartwick College the kids05:43within the top third the top third SAT05:46scores end up getting well over half of05:48the stem degrees and the kids with the05:50bottom scores end up getting very few05:53the same degrees those kids over there05:55are dropping out like for all flies like05:58this would seem to suggest that our05:59original hypothesis that persistence is06:02a function of cognitive ability is true06:04and this one also we can also go further06:07we can say if this hypothesis is true as06:09we go to more and more selective06:12institutions we should see a ver06:14different pattern of persistence we06:16should see less kids dropping out06:18because the kids are all smarter right06:20so let’s go to Harvard these numbers06:23were a few years old but at Harvard you06:26can see that the bottom third of math06:28SAT scores among kids doing science and06:30math are equal to the top third at06:33Hartwick the dumb students at Harvard06:36are as smart as the smart students at06:38Hartwick so you’d think everybody at06:40heart at Harvard should be getting a06:42math and science degree right why would06:43they drop out everyone’s so smart what06:46do we see oh dear what we see is the06:50exact same pattern at Harvard that we06:52saw at Hardwick the smart kids are the06:55top kids are getting all the degrees the06:57kids at the bottom aren’t getting any to06:59be the dropping out like flies right07:01even though these kids are brilliant07:03right so what’s happening well clearly07:09what we’re seeing here is that07:13persistence in science and math is not07:16simply a function of your cognitive07:19ability it’s a function of your relative07:22standing in your class the function of07:24your class rank right those kids who are07:28really really brilliant don’t get their07:30math degree not because that is a07:32function of their IQ but as a function07:35of where they are in their class and by07:37the way if you look at any college you07:40want you will always see regardless of07:43the level of cognitive ability among the07:44students you will always see the same07:46pattern the kids who get the science and07:48math degrees are the ones in the top of07:50their class and the kids in the bottom07:52of their class never do look at over07:54that bottom third the bottom third chart07:59over there so the name given for this08:02phenomenon among psychologists is08:05relative deprivation theory and it08:08describes this exceedingly robust08:10phenomenon which says that as human08:13beings we do not form our self08:16assessments based on our standing in the08:18world we form our self assessments based08:22on our standing in the in our immediate08:24circle on those in the same boat as our08:28selves right so a classic example of08:30relative deprivation theory is which08:34kind of country which countries have the08:36highest suicide rates happy countries or08:39unhappy countries and the answer is08:42happy countries right if you’re morbidly08:46depressed in a country where everyone08:48else is really unhappy you don’t feel08:50that unhappy right you’re not comparing08:53yourself to the universe a whole08:54universe of people out there no you’re08:56comparing yourself to your neighbors and08:58the kids at school and they’re unhappy09:00too09:00so you’re so defined but if you’re09:02morbidly depressed in a country where09:05everyone is jumping up and down for joy09:07you are really depressed right that is a09:10very very very profoundly serious place09:13to be and so as a result you get that09:16sad outcome more often so what’s09:19happening at Harvard then is the kid in09:22the bottom third of his class at Harvard09:24does not say rationally I am in the09:2799.99% I love all students in the world09:30when it comes to native math ability09:31even though that’s true09:32what that kid says is that kid over09:36there Johnny over there is getting all09:38the answers right and I’m not I feel09:40like I’m really stupid and I can’t09:42handle math so I’m going to drop out get09:44a fine arts degree move to Brooklyn09:46we’re make fifteen thousand dollars a09:48year and break my parents heart right so09:53what is the implication of this the09:55implication of this is that if you want09:58to get a science and math degree don’t09:59go to Harvard right in fact we can run10:02the numbers on this mitchell chang at10:04UCLA recently did the numbers and he10:05says as a rule of thumb your odds of10:08graduating persisting successfully10:12getting a science and math degree fall10:14by two percentage points for every10:1710-point increase in the average SAT10:19score of your peers so if you’re a kid10:22and you have a choice between a few and10:26university of maryland is your safety10:29university maryland has 150 as on10:32average SAT scores are 150 points lower10:34at maryland that means your chance of10:37graduating with a stem degree from10:39maryland is 3010:41and higher than it would be at Harvard10:42right now so if you choose to go to10:46Harvard not Maryland you are taking an10:48enormous gamble you are since you’re10:50essentially saying this stem degree by10:52the way the most valuable commodity any10:54college graduate can have in today’s10:57economy I am going to take a 30% gamble11:01in my chances of getting that degree11:03just so I can put Harvard on my resume11:05is that worth it I don’t think so right11:09but how many kids given a choice between11:11Harvard and Maryland choose Maryland not11:15that many11:16why yes Edie now why does CIC D persist11:22if it’s so plainly irrational well I11:25think it’s because as human beings we11:27dramatically underestimate the cost of11:30being at the bottom of a hierarchy and11:34I’ll let me give you another really11:35remarkable example of this this is from11:37a paper that was just came out from a11:40guy named John to two economists John11:42Conley and Ally Cindy Ally under rather11:45they looked at graduates of PhD programs11:50economics PhD programs at American11:53universities and what they were11:54interested in was what is the11:57publication record of these graduates in11:59the six years after they took an12:02academic position so as you know the12:05principal way by which we evaluate12:06economists is how often how often and12:10how well do they publish so what these12:12guys did is they did a little algorithm12:13took the top economics journals and12:16weighted them according to their level12:18of prestige and came up with a number of12:21how many years of score in the six years12:23after graduation so we get this chart12:26here which you can see first of all look12:29at the 99th percentile so what this says12:31is the 90 the kids who are in the 99th12:34percentile of their PhD program at12:37Harvard MIT Yale Princeton Columbia12:39Stanford Chicago the 99th percentile12:41that’s what they publish the Harvard12:43students publish 4.31 journal articles12:47in their first six years after12:49graduation that’s amazing right12:52astounding number same with MIT12:554.7 3 all the way down the list what we12:58see here is that the best students at13:00the very best schools are extraordinary13:03and that comes as no surprise you just13:05saw Larry Summers here I don’t know13:08where he went13:08Larry Summers that’s Larry Summers right13:11brilliant genius13:12we knew that let’s look at the 85th13:17percentile13:17now the 85th percentile at these schools13:20these are schools that might take two13:22dozen PhD students every year so if13:25you’re in the 85th percentile in the MIT13:27economics program you’re the 5th or 6th13:30best student in your class that’s really13:32smart13:33ok the 85th percent student at MIT or at13:37Harvard’s to Harvard publishes basically13:39one paper in their first six years13:43versus 4.31 in the top student so the13:46gap between 1 and 5 is enormous right13:50it’s 5x now let’s go down to the 55th13:53percentile at Harvard so the 55th13:56percent at percentile at Harvard is the13:59let’s say the 12th best person at the14:04greatest economics program in the world14:07they could arguably say they are one of14:09the 20 top PhD economics students in the14:13world right look at their publication14:15rate point zero seven basically they’re14:18not publishing at all by any standard by14:20which we judge academic economists these14:22people are complete failures right now14:28I’ve picked flouse a schools14:33and I’ve started with Toronto which is14:35where I went to school so this is a14:37little a little masochistic moment where14:40I basically confess to how paltry my14:44academic pedigree is I’ve also picked bu14:47and then I’ve also picked nan top 30 is14:50simply all the schools that are so14:53terrible I can’t bring myself to name14:55them so we’ve we’ve aggregated them all14:58so these are schools that if your child15:00anyone in the soup if your child said15:03yeah we’re going to go to one of these15:04schools you would weep what do we see15:08here what we see here is that the 99th15:12percentile at these lousy schools15:15publish more than everyone at the top15:20schools except for the 99th percentile15:23right you see that look at Toronto 3.1315:26the only people who publish more than15:29the top student at Toronto are the top15:31students at those top seven schools15:32these the top student at Boston is15:35publishing three times more than the15:3980th percentile student at Harvard what15:44does this tell us15:45well it tells us that oh they’re before15:50I got there the guys who did this study15:51having done the study were so stunned at15:55what they were seeing at what they were15:57saying that they end their their article16:00with this whole thing about what on16:02earth is going on with Harvard but16:05here’s a school which is collecting the16:07most brilliant the most accomplished the16:11probably the best-looking graduate16:14students in economics imaginable I can’t16:17imagine the bar is that high but16:19nonetheless it presumably is a selection16:21criteria they guided them all together16:24and yet everyone except for the very16:26very best students is basically a flop16:28and they say I’m quoting them why is it16:31that the majority of these successful16:33applicants who were winners and did all16:36the right things up to the time they16:38applied to graduate school became so16:40unimpressive after they are trained16:43ah relief here’s the in this moment of16:45of Jen of genuine distress and the part16:49of these two economists are we failing16:51the students or are they failing us no16:56one’s failing anyone what you’re just16:59seeing is relative deprivation in action17:02right when it comes to confidence and17:04motivation and self-efficacy the things17:06that really matter when it comes to17:09making your way in the world relative17:12position matters more than absolute17:14position right the 80th percentile17:17student at Harvard looks at those kids17:19who are smarter than him and says I17:20can’t do it the number one student at17:23Missouri says wow I am lord of the manor17:27I’m going to go out and conquer the17:29world right so what does it mean well17:33what it means what it means first of all17:35when it comes to hiring it means you17:37should hire in the basis of class rank17:39and you should be completely indifferent17:41to the institution attended by the17:44applicant in fact we should have a17:45don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy for the name17:48of your undergraduate institution it’s17:51hurting us to know that doesn’t help us17:53and when you hear some institution some17:56fabulous Wall Street investment bank17:58some universities say we only hire from18:01the top schools you should say you moron18:04that’s the word that’s what the that’s18:07not the the previous I don’t know how to18:09go backwards on slide so no you don’t18:12want to hire from only the best higher18:14than the top stood students from any18:16school Under the Sun right and it also18:19means that when it comes if you have18:21kids going to college when it comes to18:23choosing your undergraduate institution18:26you should never go to the best18:28institution you get into never go to18:31your second or your third choice go to18:33the place where you’re guaranteed to be18:34in the top part of your class right so18:37why don’t we do that well why did I come18:41here when it was profoundly in my18:44self-interest not to write because when18:48we have an opportunity to join elite18:50institutions we are so enormous ly18:52flattered and pleased with ourselves18:54that we do things that are irrational18:56you
In one instance, prosecutors said, the head women’s soccer coach at Yale accepted a $400,000 bribe in exchange for admitting a candidate as a recruited athlete. The student didn’t even play competitive soccer, according to prosecutors. After the student was admitted, her parents paid a college admissions consultant $1.2 million.
The consultant, William Singer, is expected to plead guilty to racketeering and other crimes Tuesday afternoon. He allegedly facilitated the fraud through Newport Beach, Calif.-based the Edge College & Career Network LLC.
Mr. Singer allegedly accepted payments in exchange for arranging that some of the teens could sit for the SAT or ACT college-entrance exams with extra time by getting doctor’s notes detailing learning disabilities or other issues, and that they take the tests with proctors who had been bribed to either correct wrong answers or take the test on the student’s behalf. Parents paid Mr. Singer between $15,000 and $75,000 for the test help, according to prosecutors.
Mr. Singer also allegedly helped parents work with coaches to claim admission spots reserved for recruited athletes, staging photos of the teens playing sports or photo-shopping images of the teens’ faces onto stock photos of young athletes.
Prosecutors alleged that charitable organizations were used as fronts for the bribery payments, which figured into the tens or hundreds of thousands in certain cases. Parents made the payments in the form of donations to his nonprofit organization, Key Worldwide Foundation
Other high-profile parents named in the case include Gordon Caplan, co-chairman of New York City law firm Willkie Farr.
Also charged was Bill McGlashan, founder and managing partner of TPG Growth, the arm of the private-equity firm that invests in fast-growing companies, including Airbnb Inc. and Uber Technologies Inc. With $13.2 billion in assets, TPG’s growth business has played a prominent role in the firm’s strategy since the financial crisis, and Mr. McGlashan’s star has risen at the firm.
The legacy system is affirmative action for the privileged.
We progressives hail opportunity, egalitarianism and diversity. Yet here’s our dirty little secret: Some of our most liberal bastions in America rely on a system of inherited privilege that benefits rich whites at the expense of almost everyone else.
I’m talking about “legacy preferences” that elite universities give to children of graduates. These universities constitute some of the world’s greatest public goods, but they rig admissions to favor applicants who already have had every privilege in life.
.. Most of the best universities in America systematically discriminate in favor of affluent, privileged alumni children. If that isn’t enough to get your kids accepted, donate $5 million to the university, and they’ll get a second look.
.. Reeves noted the irony that in Europe and most of the rest of the world, there is no such explicit system of legacy preferences, yet in supposedly egalitarian America it is formal and systematic.
.. Isn’t it a bit hypocritical that institutions so associated with liberalism should embrace a hereditary aristocratic structure? Ah, never underestimate the power of self-interest to shape people’s views. As Reeves put it dryly: “American liberalism tends to diminish as the issues get closer to home.”
.. having a parent graduate increased the chance of admission at 30 top colleges by 45 percentage points. For example, a candidate who otherwise had a 20 percent shot became a 65 percent prospect with a parent who had graduated from that school.
.. Earlier, a 2004 Princeton study estimated that legacy at top schools was worth an additional 160 points on an SAT, out of 1600 points.
Legacy preferences apparently were introduced in America in the early 1900s as a way to keep out Jewish students. To their credit, some American universities, including M.I.T. — not to mention Oxford and Cambridge in Britain — don’t give a legacy preference.
The top universities say that legacy preferences help create a multigenerational community of alumni, and that’s a legitimate argument. They also note that rewarding donors helps encourage donations that can be used to finance scholarships for needy kids.
Yet on balance, I’m troubled that some of America’s greatest institutions grant a transformative opportunity disproportionately to kids already steeped in advantage, from violin lessons to chess tournaments to SAT coaching. On top of that, letting wealthy families pay for extra consideration feels, to use a technical term, yucky.
Liberals object to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision allowing tycoons to buy political influence, so why allow tycoons to buy influence in college admissions?