07/24/2012 06:51 pm ET Updated Sep 23, 2012

Student Debt Has Impacts Before Graduation

With senior year looming on the horizon, it's becoming ever-more-clear to me that soon, I'll be a college graduate. After perceptively noticing this (sometime around last March), I was hit with a bit of existential panic. My current career plan involves somehow earning enough in journalism to pay my rent, which isn't exactly a winning prospect in 2012. I have a number of plan Bs, but nothing which feels completely right to me.

Working through this panic has made me realize that, complications of a journalism career aside, I'm in a pretty good position to pursue what I want in life. Some part of that is due to my own choices to work hard, pursue opportunities, apply for internships and challenge myself academically. But a far greater portion is due to coming from a relatively well-off family. Unlike most of my American peers, I'm fortunate enough to have parents who can afford to foot the bill for my college education.

There's a lot of media coverage devoted to the ever-increasing amount of debt the average college student takes on, and nationally, that debt is over $1 trillion and growing. Comparatively little attention is paid to the ways in which class privilege impacts students well before graduation day. In contrast to my peers who have loan payments looming on the horizon, my debt-free education means I won't feel pressure to find a job right after college so I can afford to make my loan payments. However, if I do end up applying for a job, my class privilege also means that my resume is filled with internships, unpaid journalistic experience and a host of other things which will make me an attractive candidate.

Take last summer. Looking for something exciting to do, I decided to spend most of the summer in Ghana doing an unpaid internship at a startup company founded by my dad. I gained a ton of practical skills and knowledge about the agricultural sector in Ghana, and got the experience of working a real 9-5 office job. It's an experience which makes my resume stand out, and one which would have been utterly impossible if I'd needed to earn enough to pay rent for the summer or finance my upcoming semester.

Even during the school year, on-campus jobs can reinforce class lines. I've worked for my college newspaper, the Whitman Pioneer, for three years and will serve as its editor-in-chief in the fall. My job involves overseeing 80 staff members, as well as the paper's budget, advertising, marketing, writing and website. It generally requires between 30 and 50 hours of work per week, on top of my classes. Hours like that can fit in with school if you don't sleep a ton, but they leave no time left over for holding a job where you can actually make money (my $1000 stipend for the semester clocks in at well below minimum wage). It's the same story with other high-up positions, like student body president or campus events coordinators. Jobs like these, which look impressive and demonstrate leadership ability, are often out of reach for students who need to support themselves through college.

Class boundaries get cemented early in life, and even for middle class and low-income individuals who do manage to pay for college, the debt burden has serious implications. Far from simply being an amount owed after graduation, debt can keep bright, motivated students from being able to pursue the best opportunities available to them, simply because they can't afford to be idealistic or take a summer off from having a paying job.

Many schools, including Whitman, have developed some programs to address this, chiefly through internship grants. Programs like this offer students the ability to receive funding through the school for doing an unpaid internship over the summer. This is a positive step, but it's important to remember that it only treats a symptom. College should be a time to learn, soak in opportunities, try new things and explore. If we continue to have an education system where the average undergraduate takes on $23,300 in debt before graduating, that dream will only be accessible to a privileged minority.