Educational System Comparison USA / France

The French and American educational systems are significantly different, and it is important to understand such differences to know and appreciate if and why one would choose to participate in both systems. This doc aims at explaining the main difference between the US education and the French system.

High School Educational Ecosystem:

    •    In France:

3 years of general study focusing on a national curriculum with the objective of Passing the final year’s national exam: the “Baccalaureat”.
Leaves very little room for specialization and customization.

Academic Achievement Measures:
    •    Moyenne (average point grade out of 20 for every class taken during the last year)

    •    Baccalaureate results (average point grade out of 20 on the exam)

    •    In the US:

4 years of study at various levels of secondary schooling depending on the state.
That schooling, while in theory being of "general education" , is already much more varied and open to multiple options and paths, especially compared to French studies.
Each student can have a very different path and group of classes, and while there are "prerequisites" it is for example possible to take advanced physics, with or without advanced math classes.

There are AP classes (Advanced Placement) available (but never mandatory) in many subjects and all are optional. AP classes are college level classes.

Academic Achievement Measures:
    •    GPA (Grade Point Average out of 4.0)

    •    3 Levels of latin Academic Honors (Cum Laude, Magna Cum Laude, Summa Cum Laude)

    •    GED Score (General Educational Development)

    •    SAT (School Admission Test) Test and score, a form of standardized test for university entrance exam; There are also specialized SAT test, for example LSAT for law school (becoming a lawyer)

French Upper Educational Ecosystem:

In France there are essentially two channels for superior education after the "Baccalaureat" which marks the end of High School:

    •    Engineering/Business School    (most selective system)

These are typically 5 years of education.
The first two years can be taken either directly at school or can be taken in High School with intensive college level classes to prepare the national competitive entrance exams to the most prestigious schools.  
Those schools are very fixed in their program, and are to be attended according to a precise schedule. Their aim is to educate the upper level of management and industry in France. They are typically covering a wide range of academic subjects, even when specialized. Students graduating from them could work in civil engineering, mechanical engineering, electronic engineering, business and management, etc…

This system is unique to French education and does not have a clear equivalent within the US educational system.

    •    Universities

They are the closest equivalent to the US universities. Diplomas are close in names, studies are very specialized and often (other than specific cases like Medical) of similar orientation towards higher academic research.

After three years of study, a student will graduate with his “License”. He can then specialize further, and graduate with a “Master” a total of five years after High School.

Finally, for students who went to an Engineering school or to University who wish to get into research they can pursue a “Doctorat” that usually takes an extra three years for a total of eight.
Students apply directly for a predefined thesis subject.

US Upper Educational Ecosystem:

Upper education is typically sorted out this way, and done in various combination of establishments, from community colleges (cheaper, less difficult to enter) to prestigious universities:

    •    Undergraduate study:

    ◦    Community College:

2 years for typically an "Associate" degree, with possibility to transfer to a University to pursue a Bachelor (transfer student)

    •    University:

4 years for a "Bachelor" degree (not to be mistaken for “Baccalaureat”, even though it sounds similar), Bachelor of Arts, or Bachelor of Science (BSc.).

These have "Major", the principal field of study and "Minor", the secondary principal field of study. Study is pretty specialized, in particular compared to French studies, and it is not uncommon to change Majors during the course of the education.

    •    Post Graduate

After a Bachelor, most American students go directly on the job market but they have the possibility to continue studying if they want to get into research.

    •    Master

Typically 2 years of even more specialized studies with a focus on one main subject matter, time is now split between classes and research in a laboratory on campus.
Tuition could be covered by teaching undergraduate classes (Graduate Teaching Assistant).

    •    PhD

At least 5 years, students spend most of their time conducting research.
The thesis subject is determined by the students themselves after having worked in the laboratory for a while.
If an industry contact is interested, their tuition is covered by them. The student then becomes a Graduate Research Assistant (GRA).

    •    Post Doctoral

Fundamental research in a laboratory with a career in Academia for objective.

Cost of Education
All upper education requires a substantial investment between tuition and various expenses. There are various "Scholarships" that one may be qualified for by multiple institutions and reasons (sport, academic, companies, awards, etc..). Another way is contracting an education loan, to be repaid as one starts to work.
Community colleges tend to be cheaper.

Similarities and convergences
In the US, like in France, Universities work by reputation, a diploma from one university is not considered equivalent to the same diploma from any other university. Reputation and other historical variables account for a lot of the "value" of said diploma.
A master from MIT, will be more valuable than a Master from any other University, like a “Diplome d’Ingenieur” from Polytechnique is more valuable than one from a lower ranked Engineering School.

Eventually, after a few years of professional experience, work ethic, culture fit, career objectives and performance become the main factors for finding a job and determining salary.

The fact that there are huge companies like Apple, Amazon, etc.. in the US, and so far not in France is not because of or directly related to this difference in educational and cultural system. It is related to the difference in entrepreneurial ecosystems between the countries (between financing access, ability to create new business models, etc..).
The fact that a lot of companies find the French engineers to be at the top, or that many companies are relying on French engineering one way or another would tend to show that the French way of engineering education is more effective. However there is no denying that the US general business ecosystem is more effective at creating and sustaining entrepreneurship and worldwide reach for companies.

Administrative Equivalency
This is the equivalency you will encounter when you need to "translate" officially one diploma from one system into the other (for a resume, for applying to jobs, for your LinkedIn profile, etc)

    •    “Diplome d'Ingenieur” → Master of Science in … Engineering

For most Arts et Metiers Graduates, their diploma translates to a Master of Science in the discipline they focused the most on during their last two years (Mechanical, Industrial, Biomechanics, Electrical, …)
To know more about recognition of the French engineering diploma:

    •    Doctorat en … → PhD (stands for Philosophiae Doctor, or Doctor of Philosophy) in …
That is a direct equivalency between a “Doctorat” in a particular discipline in France and the PhD in the US.

What would the student gain from coming into the US system:

  • Same or related discipline studies:

  • Validation of knowledge

Because both systems are different, to study in one discipline (i.e. thermodynamics) in the US could be just a validation of what one already knows (approaches might be different). That said one could get a Master's, or a PhD and it will always be more focused. A solution could also be multiple Masters and/or PhD in multiple disciplines (not uncommon in the US).
Validating knowledge already acquired (or close enough) helps getting into the US system (US diplomas, US records, US structure)
Part of validation could also be accreditation, for example for civil engineering, or similar disciplines that may require a local certification.

    •    Specialization
Doing a degree in the US may give one access to a very advanced field of study as well as interaction with the top level companies in said field or discipline.

That access, knowledge and reputation will be the top in the world. Various universities are at the top of various fields, it is important to know which fields one is interested in to select which university.

    •    Acquiring Recognition:

As explained above, in the US system, reputation might not be everything, but certainly plays a huge role, so it might be interesting to attach reputation to one's diploma by taking classes in said university. 
US Universities are also more easily recognized in the US and abroad than most European Universities and Schools.

    •    International Recognition:

Also because the eye of the world is always turned towards the US, in particular the universities, it is much easier to have a worldwide access and reputation from one point in the US (Research Alb, particular company specialized in...) than from anywhere else
Having a degree from an US University opens up the international job market.

    •    Possibility to work in a dynamic country upon graduation

The F1 Student Visa, needed to be allowed to study in the US, also allows students to legally work in the country for up to three years after graduation.

    •    Contacts and sourcing with industries
Because of the close relationship between fundamental research in universities and top technology companies (in many fields), studying in a particular field in a US university gives access to people and organizations around that field.

    •    Access to a bustling startup environment

Also a lot of start-ups and various other companies are created, incubated, funded around universities and their teachers/students/research. For example silicon valley, biotech in Boston, etc.. The access to resources will be easier and more common in these nests of technology.

    •    Different discipline study

One could also choose to complement a degree in France with a degree in the US in a completely different discipline. The most obvious would be an MBA (Master in Business and Administration). There are many ways that could be imagined (Law degree, medicine degree, etc..) where a combination of educational degrees may give access to various opportunities.

MBA is the way to higher business management in the US. It is not a direct way, and it is not comparable as "Ecole de Commerce" either. It is a starting point, which needs to be followed by practical achievements. Some companies may consider it as too theoretical of a thinking for practical purposes. In the US doing business, entrepreneurship and the like are something that is not considered difficult, and is almost ingrained in the psyche, thus an MBA is not necessary for  being very successful in business, nor is having an MBA a guarantee of great success in business. Though, getting an MBA degree might be a great way to get into top consulting firms.

Both systems are performing, each on their own. They are simply different and their real life ecosystem (industry, recruiting, cultural method of management and operation) are just each coherent with their own educational system.
The French education system covers a lot of topics and prepares what we call “general engineers” while the American system is highly ( more ?) specialized, which is its strength and its weakness at the same time.

They both produce very effective engineers and managers, and they both produce very hi tech industries and developments.

It could be simplified as the educational system in France is more horizontal, and thus the industry and change of positions, management and expectations are thus also more horizontal.

In the US the educational system is more vertical (less broad knowledge, more in depth knowledge of a specific field) and thus the industry in its expectation, measurement, hiring methods, management and expectations is also adapted to such verticality.