06/27/2013 03:41 pm ET Updated Aug 27, 2013

The Death of Equality of Opportunity -- An Intern's Perspective

Every summer thousands of optimistic college students flock to internship hot spots -- New York City, Washington, D.C., and Silicon Valley.

Many, if not the majority, of interns pay their own way: summer housing, round-trip tickets, food (even Ramen adds up) and proper attire can cost thousands of dollars.

It's not a surprise that students across the nation are willing to volunteer their labor. A recent study by the Chronicle of Higher Education and American Public Media's Marketplace found that an internship was "the single most important credential for recent college graduates to have on their resume" across all industries -- from accounting to journalism to telecommunications.

While a National Association of Colleges and Employers study that concluded unpaid interns have little advantage over their peers who did not do internships has made waves, employer-driven data tends to emphasize the personal and professional skill development that even unpaid interns receive.

It's no wonder that 79 percent of employers positively value unpaid internships in hiring decisions.

For many non-STEM careers, unpaid internships offer invaluable exposure to an industry. Careers in the arts, media, non-profit and politics often have high barriers to entry that networking and professional engagement can overcome.

The debate on unpaid internships needs to shift from one of efficacy to one of fairness because no one is asking the important question: Who gets to do these internships in the first place?

A survey released Monday brought up a troubling statistic: 76 percent of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck with little in savings for emergencies -- or simpler things like vacation or a child's summer internship.

Unpaid internships are increasingly becoming a privilege. The number of parents who can foot the bill for their child's dream gig in an expensive city are declining.

Macroeconomic factors are also working against lower-class students: tuition continues to outpace inflation, student loan debt is at an all-time high and competition is at an all-time high.

The days of the paid internship -- where interns could expect to make a livable wage -- being the norm are long gone.

What's left is something far more systemic and scary. Equality of opportunity in America is on the decline. With that decline comes a decline in diversity, voice and upward mobility.

I see it every day at my college. Lower-class students are forced to pick between volunteer leadership positions (student body president, for example) and a work study job collecting towels at the gym. These choices are tough ones -- suffering in the short run in the hope that the long run will be better. But, for many students, who pick extracurricular activities based on professional development instead of salary benefits, the summer months are a time to play catch up.

Politicians on both sides of the aisle continue to state that America is great because the daughter of a refugee and the grandson of a Ph.D. can both make it.

Increasingly, however, the rhetoric simply doesn't match the empirical truth: advantages enjoyed by the rich are slowly becoming institutionalized.

Some colleges, like mine, have begun to pick up part of the tab for unpaid internships. Some firms have started paying interns.

But, the solution can be broader and more free market oriented. Pay interns for the work they do at a fair price -- a price that is certainly higher than zero.