A news story that caught my eye during the recent graduation season came from Boston College. The fifth child of a janitor who has been working on the graveyard shift there since 1994 got her diploma at the end of May and joined her four siblings as Boston College alumni.
Fred Vautour took advantage of an employee benefit program and was thus able to receive $700,000 worth of free higher education for his five children — all first-generation college graduates. This fact sets them apart on the social scale from families on the short side of the opportunity gap, namely, those headed by parents like Fred Vautour and his wife, who top out their education with a high school diploma or less.
Most of the students with whom the Vautour children mingled in the Boston College classrooms and dormitories were from high-income families. The Vautours had the intellectual ability and the motivation to step up for a college education. The employee benefit provided to this Boston College custodial worker gave him with the wherewithal to send his children to college.
Boston College is a good place to work. It is also respectful and considerate of the dignity of its employees. An indication of this was that Mr. Vautour was invited to step up on the graduation stage and give his daughter, the fifth to graduate, her diploma.
I can only speculate on what the future holds for these five graduates. They all have now achieved a coveted portion of the American dream — they are college graduates. They will marry and have families of their own. Those families will start off on the upper half of the class divide.
It goes without saying that the Vautour children are grateful to their father who made it happen, and he is proud of them. He is also grateful to Boston College for the employee benefit.
Robert D. Putnam’s new book, “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis,” points out that “social class” is an ambiguous term in American culture. That’s why Putnam used parents’ education as the indicator of social class: Four-year college graduates and their children were classified “upper middle class,” while parents who had not gone beyond high school were, with their children, classified as “lower class” or “middle class.”
What Boston College has done for one of its janitors is, as the saying goes, a “class act.” Where the Vautour children will now in all probability spend their working lives is generally referred to as “upper middle class.”
At this tipping point in American life, as Putnam’s subtitle suggests, the American dream is in crisis. Generally speaking, this generation’s young people cannot presume, as their predecessors did, that they will, on average, have lifetime earnings higher than their parents. There is no guarantee of that, and the probabilities point to movement in the opposite direction.
The implications of this will become more evident in the years ahead in decisions to attend or not attend college, which college to choose, what major to select and what occupations to pursue throughout a working life.
It is all but certain that percentage-wise, there will be fewer children of privilege in the America of the future, even if we do manage to sustain a strong economy.
Jesuit Father William Byron is professor of business and society at St. Joseph’s University, Philadelphia. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.