It is the time of year when high school seniors are anxiously checking the mailbox for letters from college admissions offices. A new book cautions students—and their parents—against obsessing over schools with famous names or fancy campuses.

“Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania,” by Frank Bruni, a New York Times columnist, reminds readers that a school’s ‘brand’ is not the be-all and end-all.

As someone who invests in scholarships for deserving students, I submitted a letter to the editor at the Times to share some views about the book and the challenges that confront those with modest means.

Enrolling in college is just the beginning of a long journey. What you do at school counts for more than where you do it. Mr. Bruni, a New York Times columnist, deserves accolades for debunking the myth that career success requires a pedigree from the likes of Yale or Stanford. But his book pays less attention to the serious and widespread hazards of borrowing to the hilt to go to a ‘dream’ college.

Make no mistake: a college education is a wonderful investment. Over a lifetime, students with college degrees typically earn double the wages of those with a high school diploma or less. But there are ways to obtain a good education without spending a fortune.

It’s easy to see how students and parents get themselves in trouble. They sometimes get caught up in the triumphant emotional swirl that comes with an acceptance letter from an expensive college with social cachet. Loans are relatively easy to get, and the payments don’t come due right away. So the numbers and the liability on the financial aid forms seem less urgent.

But as sure as sunrise, those bills WILL come due, and sooner than it seems. If they’re unmanageable, they can result in terrible hardship for a very long time. Student debt nationally now exceeds $1.2 trillion, more than the total of all credit card balances. And unlike other loans, student debt cannot be discharged in bankruptcy court. The average debt of student borrowers is now about $33,000, but it’s easy to find those who owe $100,000 or $200,000, and sometimes even more.

I founded the Give Something Back Foundation (GSBF) to help promising students from modest backgrounds pay for college. As a product of the working class myself, it was my way to repay a $250 scholarship I was awarded by the Lockport Woman’s Club as a high school senior.

Our foundation has helped more than 250 students pay for college, and it’s a goal to help many more. As children, some of these scholarship recipients experienced the death of a parent, incidents of domestic violence, even homelessness. Today some of these same kids work in law, medicine, education and finance, among other meaningful pursuits. Some of their stories are chronicled in my recent book, “Through the Fires: An American Business Story of Turbulence, Triumph and Giving Back.”

At GSBF, we have experimented with some different approaches to scholarships. We ultimately settled on partnerships with three colleges—the University of St. Francis and Lewis University, both in Will County; and Blackburn College near Springfield. Our foundation contributed $1 million to each of the colleges, in exchange for slots that give students a chance go through school with no debt. In negotiating with the colleges, we were able to get bargain rates that meant a big increase in the number of students who could win scholarships.

Students who qualify for the program are selected as high school freshmen. Their families have a demonstrated financial need. The students must maintain a ‘B’ average and demonstrate good character. Many of them receive the help of mentors and tutors.

And it has worked wonders. Here’s a statistic that blows the socks off people in the academic world. Our students have achieved a 92 percent college graduation rate! That compares with a national graduation rate of less than 40 percent. Many of our scholarship students are first-generation college students, or even first-generation Americans. That makes the accomplishments all the more remarkable.

There aren’t enough GSBF scholarships for everyone, of course. But students and families can significantly reduce costs in a variety of ways. They can opt for a community college for two years, and then transfer to a university. A student can save a bundle by living at home and commuting to school.

Students can shop around to find the best bargains. It surprises many families to learn that financial aid can make some private schools a cheaper alternative to public institutions.

Negotiating with schools can mean a better financial package, especially if you have an attractive offer from a rival institution. Perhaps most important, don’t turn up your nose at schools simply because they don’t have a country club ‘glamour.’

In his book, Mr. Bruni notes the tremendous success of so many people, including many CEOs, who attended unsung colleges. These are schools that provided an excellent education, if not as much pomp.

College is a series of exams. One of the first tests is the challenge to make a smart choice about costs.

No matter where a student goes, working hard can make almost any college a ‘dream school.’