I recently started graduate school. Already I can tell that my work experience is a huge benefit. Before my undergraduate years I had no interest in the inner workings of computers or really any concept of what programming event meant. I really began as a sophomore. Thus it took me until my mid 20s to be comfortable enough with programming and computing to actually begin to absorb higher level concepts. However, it isn't just my computing knowledge that has improved, but my ability to focus on work and absorb information has improved. My level of motivation is also much greater, and while I am now freer to pursue courses that I choose, there is still a marked difference. I suppose that the summation of these improvements in my academic fitness can be summarized by one word, maturity.
When I think back about the amount of time and money (your money, since I was on scholarship funded by taxpayers) it makes me wonder how common this experience is? How often would a 27 year old perform markedly better than their 22 year old counterpart? What about a 23 year old vs. their 19 year old counterpart? Perhaps I was an abnormally dissolute case, but I can't help but wonder if billions of dollars and countless hour are wasted on millions of young people, who kinda don't know what else to do. With the amount of personal dept created, its something worth thinking about. There certainly are properly motivated people, my fiance is a fine example, who really crush as undergrads. And since I have absolutely no evidence I think I will get off the totally baseless, idea that most undergraduates are wasting time.
I'm going to wrap up this totally rudderless rambling. Most jobs, programming included, don't require higher education. Some of the most reliable developers I've work with have no formal programming education. If someone asked me what they should do if they wanted to be a programmer, I would say "get a job". If you want to get into research "go to school". The problem with this advice is the extra crap you have to do to get a bachelors makes starting an undergraduate program after your early 20s a pretty big hassle. So really the upshot is that everything is a risk. If you go to college at a young age, you risk money time, and potentially performing too poorly to continue your education (almost got me). If you go into the work force, you risk your time, and if life sneaks up on you. However, with the proliferation of information and free courses online, I'm leaning further and further towards advising entering the work force, at least for a couple years.