I'm not sure that sysadmins, network engineers, and the other better IT jobs have to start out at the bottom rung.
I'm sure it's not always the case. There are various reasons why people get hired to jobs-- some better than others. However, I'll tell you that I wouldn't hire someone as a sysadmin who hasn't had experience as a sysadmin unless I knew that they had prior troubleshooting and support experience in a real-world setting. There are lots of reasons for that, some of them more obvious than others. I'll also comment that my position seems to fit along with other people that I've known who would hire a sysadmin or network engineer, though that's still all anecdotal.
It's ok. Like you said, to each his own.
Yup. Honestly, I've found I just don't like programming. I don't even like scripting and web development. I like logically solving problems, product design, and I'm even interested in some of the math involved, but I don't enjoy the process of actually coding or the project planning involved. I actually prefer the support side, though it's not tons of money, and it's been a long time since I was tier-1. Also, even when I was tier-1, I wasn't doing the sort of work where people read a script sitting in a huge support farm.
Yes. That is true. And if you DO have an education, you typically start at a higher point in said path, end at a higher point, and have vastly greater chances of reaching the upper echelons than if you do not have an education. Depends on the career.
Starting at a higher point... I think it probably depends on the industry. In my experience in IT support, it's definitely not the huge determining factor. We're always looking for young people who can be trained. I think you have a better point in saying, "have vastly greater chances of reaching the upper echelons", but I suspect it's for a weird mix of reasons. I do expect that there are bosses who won't promote you to a certain level without having the "college degree" box checked on your records. I also think that, to some degree, there are qualities that help you be successful in business and also make you more likely to go to college, e.g. a tendency toward conformity and willingness to jump through required hoops, or the idea that people with a certain kind of intelligence are more likely to be able to finish school and do well in business.
Actually though, it's true that there are businesses who will hire IT purely based on college education and certificates. Those people tend not to know what they're doing.