Challenges and opportunities of social diversity: Who will be our students of tomorrow?

Access to public university education in Switzerland is guaranteed to all holders of a certificate from a Swiss Baccalaureate school. It should not be influenced by background or parental education levels. However, we observe a decline in the representation of children from families where neither parent has obtained a higher education degree – first-generation students – as they progress through the educational system, from compulsory school to university education. This trend is more pronounced in scientific fields. In this data story, we delve deeper into this issue by examining the transition between Baccalaureate schools and EPFL, considering the different specializations of the Baccalaureate.

Social Diversity in STEM Fields: An Analysis of the Transition from Baccalaureate school to EPFL

In April 2023, our data story revealed a significant difference between the proportion of first-generation students among graduates from the Baccalaureate schools and the student body at EPFL. As a consequence, we conducted a survey among students and the professorate of Baccalaureate schools in French-speaking Switzerland to better understand this phenomenon. Subsequent analyses and a new dataset shed new light on this question.

About 54% of students with a Swiss educational background who come to EPFL followed the specialization in Physics and Applied Mathematics (PAM), 26% followed the specialization in Biology & Chemistry (BiolChim), and 20% followed another specialization in high school. The survey conducted among Baccalaureate students explores the correlations between particular educational choices, social background, and the intention to study at EPFL. In addition to selecting a specialization, high school students can choose between the standard or the advanced level in mathematics. The advanced level is recommended for those planning to pursue scientific, technical, or economic education [references: NE, GE, VD]. The survey asked all respondents who indicated an interest in a discipline taught at EPFL about the factors that motivate or demotivate them to consider studying at our institution.

No Invisible Barrier to Access to EPFL

In 2023, we observed a notable contrast between the proportion of first-generation students at EPFL (32%) compared to those earning a Baccalaureate (52%). This difference raised concerns about a substantial loss of diversity specific to the transition between high school and EPFL.

However, a recent coupling of internal EPFL data with data from the Swiss Federal Statistical Office allows for a more detailed analysis, particularly considering the level of mathematics, for those who started their first year at EPFL between 2016 and 2021. Examining these results, we find that the percentage of first-generation students is lower among first-year students at EPFL than among all graduates from Baccalaureate school for each specialization. Nevertheless, the observed gap is much smaller than the difference described in our April 2023 data story

In the first year at EPFL, 36% of the student body is first-generation. In comparison, we observe significant differences in the rate of first-generation students at the high school level, depending on the specialization. EPFL attracts mainly students with a scientific background – particularly from the specialization in PAM – and these upstream differences have an impact on the social diversity at our school. Additionally, there are regional differences between French-speaking Switzerland (EPFL’s talent pool) and the rest of the country. This difference also affects diversity at EPFL.

PAM Students Loyal to EPFL Regardless of Social Background

Our survey shows that for PAM students, there is no significant difference in their intention to study at EPFL based on social background. About 60% of these students plan to study at EPFL, 10% are determined to go elsewhere, and 30% are still undecided at the time of the survey. Some differences can be observed between men and women, but not according to social background among students of the same gender.

First-Generation Female Students Show Less Interest in Coming to EPFL

The level of mathematics in the Baccalaureate school is correlated with success at EPFL (see our November 2023 data story). The survey shows that EPFL does not attract all students who follow the advanced mathematics level equally. In particular, first-generation female students who pursue advanced mathematics and express an interest in the fields taught at EPFL are less determined to come to EPFL than their counterparts from academic families. First-generation male students don’t display this difference in behavior. We find that the main reason given by those who do not want to study at EPFL is that their preferred discipline is not offered at our school.

A Societal Issue

EPFL is taking measures to facilitate access and improve support for first-generation students, but it is also crucial to act upstream.

The 2023 Swiss Education Report reminds us that “access to higher education in Switzerland, as in most countries, is related to social background. Children from academic families are much more likely to enter and successfully complete a higher education programme than those whose parents did not study”. Furthermore, the report highlights that the increase in the educational level of the population in a region is correlated with an increase in the Baccalaureate rate.

Student orientation, whether explicit or implicit, begins well before the transition from high school to higher education institutions. Recent trends do not favor greater diversity in STEM disciplines at the university level. Already in 2013, first-generation students chose the specialization in PAM proportionally less than other students. This gap has since widened: children from academic families show an increasing interest in scientific options to the detriment of modern languages. Conversely, the distribution of first-generation students evolves more slowly. The percentage of these students obtaining a Baccalaureate with specialization in PAM has remained stable between 2013 and 2022. This situation further reduces social diversity among the classic profiles (PAM, advanced mathematics) leading to EPFL.


To achieve a fairer and more inclusive balance in the fields of science and technology, it is crucial to intervene upstream of the educational path, particularly during the selection of specializations for the Baccalaureate and at the level of secondary studies. Although these observations are not new, the essential question remains how we can break the current dynamic and encourage a profound change in the educational system. Several factors are at play, such as the overrepresentation of girls in high school, the perception of scientific careers, the structure and level of specializations, and the early orientation system.

EPFL is implementing various initiatives to support future students in their decision-making process, enabling them to make informed choices and start their studies under the best possible conditions. This early awareness is essential, and its development could significantly enhance social diversity within STEM disciplines.

Survey among High School Students

  • Participants: Nearly 1,000 students responded on a voluntary basis, with 743 complete responses.
  • Response rate: Estimated at 10%, with significant variations between cantons and institutions.
  • Demographic bias: Overrepresentation of  students from the PAM specialization, which is expected for a survey conducted by EPFL. Also overrepresentation of women.
  • Interest in EPFL: 322 complete responses show an interest in university education in the fields of “Exact and Natural Sciences”, “ICT”, and “Engineering, Architecture”.
  • Survey content: Study intentions, perception of EPFL, educational and family background. The goal is to understand what attracts or discourages students to study at EPFL, define profiles of future students, and identify those EPFL struggles to attract.

June 2024

Sarah Gerster, Omar Ballester, Tristan Maillard