Art & Culture

Published on September 15th, 2014 | by Molly Montgomery


Higher Education in France and the United States: A Brief Overview


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Every year, thousands of students from both the United States and France fly across the Atlantic to study at each other’s universities. During the 2011-2012 school year, 17,168 American students studied in France alone, making it the fourth most popular study abroad destination for Americans. For French students, the United States is the second most popular study abroad destination after the U.K., with 8,200 students choosing to pursue their education in the U.S. last year.

Students from both countries must cope with a language barrier and culture shock upon their arrival, but one of the most confusing differences they need to confront is the structure of higher education in their new home.
The university systems of the United States and France work in vastly different ways, which might leave study abroad students unsure about how to approach their education.

In the United States, students are eligible to attend university (more commonly called “college”) upon graduation from high school. They usually apply to more selective four-year colleges or enroll at a less selective two-year college called a community college. Community college students can complete a degree called an A.A. or Associate’s degree after two years of study, or they can transfer to a four-year university and obtain a Bachelor’s degree after four years. American students often have little to no idea of what they want to study when they enter college, so they spend most of their first and second years trying out different courses and choosing a major.


Diplomas. Photo by UC Riverside.

On the other hand, French students usually decide their area of study before enrolling in university. Most decide in high school, before they take the bac, which is an exam required for high school graduation. Students can choose whether to specialize in sciences, social sciences, or literature when they take the bac, and then most of the time they continue to study a related subject at university. French students obtain a licence, the equivalent of a Bachelor’s degree usually after three years of study, and continue their education to obtain a masters in one to two more years of study.

French higher education is divided up into two tiers: grand écoles, such as Sciences Pos Paris, which are more prestigious and allow students to make better connections in their desired industry, and local universities, such as the University of Lyon II, where I studied abroad. Some might compare grand écoles to Ivy Leagues in the U.S., but the process for admission at a grand école is more complicated. In order to be admitted into a grand école, students must take a highly competitive national exam which lasts an entire day and focuses on the student’s chosen area of study (such as life sciences, political science, or humanities). Most students prepare for this exam by taking preparatory courses for two years!

If students choose to attend local universities, they are guaranteed admission as long as they have completed the bac. This creates a very different dynamic in higher education than in the United States, where the competition to be admitted into selective colleges is very high, even at some public universities, such as the University of California system. At French universities, first-year and second-year classes are very difficult, causing students to drop out early. The weeding process happens after students enroll, not before. On the other hand, American universities value high graduation rates. A higher graduation rate boosts a school’s reputation, so universities try to support students who are having academic difficulties.

As an American student studying abroad in France, here are a few more key differences that I experienced while taking classes at a French university:
American students have more flexibility with choosing classes at their universities. French students are placed on to a particular track due to their chosen specialization from day one, so they are often told which courses they must take at what time, instead of choosing their own schedule. American students have more time to decide what they want to study and more chances to take electives. Sometimes, they can even craft their schedule so that they don’t have classes on Mondays and Fridays, or make it so all of their classes are in the afternoon. French students can have a taste of this flexibility when they study abroad in the U.S. As for Americans studying in France, when I studied abroad, Americans were allowed to choose from a given list of classes offered by the university, but the availability of classes depends on the study abroad program.

Classes in French universities focus more on oral presentation than classes in the United States. It is not uncommon for an oral presentation to take the place of a final exam or paper in France. On the other hand, classes in the United States give more “busywork,” such as problem sets, essays, and short homework assignments.

The relationship between student and professor is less formal in the United States. American students often interact with professors outside of class in their “office hours” to ask for help or to continue class discussions.

Finally, the cost of higher education in the two different countries may come as a surprise. French students are probably shocked by the cost of tuition in the United States, which is an average of $13,856 per year (10,502 euros). American students, on the other hand, would find the price that French students pay for university to be unbelievable: an average of $585 per year (443 euros). American students, don’t get too excited — most Americans usually pay their home university tuition while studying abroad.


Photo by Nouvelobs.

For all these differences, there are many similarities between French and American universities that students from either country will find reassuring. Both university systems usually offer large lecture courses with a professor explaining material to hundreds of students. These lectures often break into smaller groups led by a professor or, more often in the United States, a graduate teaching assistant. In American universities, these are often called discussion sections or just sections. In France, these classes are called travaux dirigés or conférences de méthode.

Students from both countries can rest assured that they will be among other young people who are pursuing similar academic interests. And outside of school, French and American students both spend their time doing similar activities, such as playing sports, participating in clubs, shopping, and just hanging out.

Furthermore, both French and American students often choose to study abroad in their third year of college. Study abroad is becoming more of a rite of passage for students in both countries. Attending university in a country where a different language is spoken can seem daunting at first, but American and French students return from their time abroad with treasured memories and valuable knowledge of a different culture.


About the Author

is an English teaching assistant at a high school in France and a recent graduate of UCLA, where she studied English and French. Her writing has been published in *TravelAge West Magazine* and in various literary journals including *Westwind* and the *Blue Lake Review*.

One Response to Higher Education in France and the United States: A Brief Overview

  1. Arleigh Taylor says:

    Thanks for the well thought out and written article!

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