A graduate school in Political Science and International Relations spotlight: the world-renowned Sciences Po, Paris. In this month-long series, alumni share their insights about the school’s different programs, its culture and why it might or might not be a food fit for those going into an international politics career.
Once upon a time, Sciences Po was the exclusive school for the French elite. All courses were exclusively taught in French and the funds required to prepare a prospective student to undergo all the necessary exams and interviews before being admitted were beyond the means of low-income families. In a country where university is nearly free and equality is a major concern, Sciences Po stood out as one of the schools reserved for only a select few, with tuition fees to match.
Today, Sciences Po is still a prestigious university with a reputation of catering for the social and economic elite. However, there has been a great effort in recent years to include more students from low-income and marginalized backgrounds and to promote the school at the international level. The late Richard Descoings was responsible for these innovations and he was accused of many things, particularly of the “Americanization” of Sciences Po. However, so far both initiatives – diversity and internationalization – have enjoyed a great success.
Sciences Po, like many other prestigious French institutions of higher learning, had a significant diversity deficit. In order to tackle this, Sciences Po created the Equal Opportunity program, to offer to low-income students a possibility to apply and be accepted. There are 106 schools across France and Overseas Territories involved in this scheme and Sciences Po has admitted almost two thousand students since its inception.
The program works like this: there are workshops in the high schools to prepare for the Sciences Po entrance exam and visits to Sciences Po campus, to encourage students to apply. After, some students are pre-selected to apply for Sciences Po through this procedure. The selected students do a specific entrance exam, which consists in an interview with a jury to discuss the student’s goals and career plans.
Once students are admitted to Sciences Po, they can benefit from tutoring, mentoring and intensive classes before official school starts in order to prepare. All students from this program receive tuition waivers and scholarships, to make sure money is not an impediment for them to pursue their studies.
Despite the diverse backgrounds, the students admitted through this program register more or less the same employability rate than students admitted through the traditional procedure. When they graduate, 81% the students of the Equal Opportunity program are able to find employment in the first three months.
For Sciences Po, the benefits are tremendous, particularly when it comes to the diversity of the student body. For the partner high schools, this kind of program actually lifts academic performance for the school in general, as it provides students with a goal and encouragement.
The Paris School of International Affairs (PSIA) was a bold move when it was created, back in 2010. The goal was to have a truly international school, that still managed to present to its students French theory and research, but which had a diverse faculty and student body. PSIA is also bilingual, which means there are classes available in both French and English, although English is more favored by the admissions office. If you are not fluent in French, you might still be accepted, but not if you cannot speak English.
Today, over 70% of PSIA students are from outside of France. Coming from over 100 countries, PSIA is certainly one of the most international schools in France. The prestige of Sciences Po in French-speaking countries continues to attract a lot of students, but the possibility of studying at such a renowned university in English and paying much less is also attractive to students from the United States and other countries.
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