04/17/2013 04:25 pm ET Updated Jun 17, 2013

You Can't Eat Prestige

The admissions offers are in, and the celebrations and/or wringing of hands have begun. If you didn't get in to your first-choice school, I think you might find some comfort in reading insightful moanings of high school senior Suzy Lee Weiss in her brilliant Wall Street Journal letter to "(All) the Colleges That Rejected Me."

If you did, get in, great! You're probably flying pretty high right now, and with good reason. It feels wonderful to be acknowledged by a school that makes people go... wow. That's what it's all about, right?

Well, yes and no. Now you're facing May 1: Decision Day. Suddenly, and for a brief time, the shoe is on the other foot. You're not used to being in this position. You're used to being the lowly supplicant, begging for consideration from [insert name of impressive school]. Now they are waiting to hear if you will accept them.

Do take a moment to pause and savor this temporary reversal of fortunes. Feel the power of rejection coursing in your veins instead of theirs. Then try to shake off the intoxicating euphoria of your recent admission and think objectively. It's time to sober up and be rational.

Here's what I want you to know: Just because you got in to a particular name-brand school doesn't mean you have to go there. It's not a foregone conclusion. As you're perusing the offers and comparing the financial details, please keep this in mind and please remain open to all the possibilities.

I hate to be a bucket of cold water, but colleges deliberately don't give you much time to weigh your offers because they want you to make an emotional, impulsive decision. In this economy, however, you must choose a college with your head -- not your heart.

If you're thinking of going to a school that you're not sure you can realistically or comfortably afford, tread carefully. The reality is that an admissions offer from a fancy school is no guarantee of a golden future and likewise no protection against the economic hardships that life can throw at you. In reality, trying to pay back the loans for four years at a school beyond your means could conceivably turn out to be one of the first economic hardships life throws at you.

When I was an undergraduate at Harvard back in the 1980s, the workers in our dining halls used to wear buttons that proclaimed: "You can't eat prestige." I asked one of the servers in the cafeteria line what his button meant. He explained that the workers were trying to unionize in search of better wages from the well-heeled institution that employed them. I found the message interesting, but nothing more, at the time.

I learned the true meaning for myself a short time later, when the stock market crashed right after my graduation and the economy plunged into a deep recession. I was shocked to discover how hard it was to find a decent job -- even with my fancy Ivy League degree. I schlepped the New York City streets with my English degree, in desperate search of an entry-level position with a publishing house or magazine. Along the way, I stopped in several temp agencies, to try to churn the cash I needed simply to finance the job hunt. I can't even imagine what I would have done if I had had to manage student loans on top of paying rent.

The best offer I was able to finagle was as an editorial assistant (glorified photocopier) for a paltry $13,000 a year -- the equivalent of about $27,000 today. Despite the low pay, it was a prestigious company, so it pains me to admit I seriously considered taking the job. Ultimately, it was my father who talked me out of accepting it. He calculated that, after paying for rent and transportation costs, I would probably qualify for food stamps and that it could actually wind up costing me money to work there.

That's when I realized: It's not just the employees of Harvard who can't eat prestige. It's the graduates, too! We have to make our way in the world the same as everyone else. Even if you could eat prestige, I'm pretty sure it would be a thin, watery gruel.

Daniel Gulati of the Harvard Business Review makes a compelling argument for why your accomplishments in life will matter far more than your affiliations. He cites the decline of prestigious companies, the rise of social media allowing for independent personal branding, and the emergence of new online measurement tools (such as Klout) to assess and quantify your skills and influence levels. Gulati points out that "distinguishing yourself through real, tangible accomplishments shows the world what you've actually done while de-emphasizing who accepted you into their organization. The latter is a superficial vanity device designed to boost confidence; the former is a validated, objective measure of your skills and experience." In other words, your prospects in life don't begin and end with your college degree.

So, to those of you with the prestigious admissions offers, a hearty, well-earned congratulations. Your hard work and accomplishments have not gone unnoticed. But I want to offer you permission to think beyond the U.S. News & World Report rankings to make the best possible college decision for your future. If you feel like you're being asked to sacrifice your family's financial security on the altar of elite higher education, think it over very carefully.

You don't have to be an alma martyr.