"Oh Jesus Christ are you really going to sit there and say that anyone could pick up a book on any subject without guidance and get the same level of education they can get in college?"
Why yes, that is exactly what I am saying.
I'm sorry you feel that knowledge is like a manufactured product and that humans, who have the ability to learn, are somehow analogous to machines. However that simply is not the case. Some people learn well in a college setting, others are able to read and comprehend the same information through other means.
What it sounds like you are arguing is that people are somehow required to accept, a-priori, the notion that any education obtained outside of some "approved" means is somehow inferior. What you fail to realize is that such a notion is not only horribly elitist, but flat-out wrong.
"So you think that paying a ton of cash for a university level degree is a waste?"
Oh the piece of paper may be valuable, depending on the organization you purchased it from, but it is a mistake to confuse the piece of paper with the level of education one receives. The two are linked by correlation, not causation.
If we are talking about the paper, I can see a case being made for it's value (which I would also contend is unfortunate).
However, if we are talking about the education by itself, then I would have to say yes. Paying thousands of dollars to learn something you could have spend a fraction of your time and money learning is not a good investment.
"There still exist, however, extraordinarily specialized fields that you do need a university curriculum to learn."
Name one. Name a single field where it is impossible for someone to acquire a meaningful understanding of the subject matter apart from going to college to study it in a formal setting.
What you are advocating here sounds a lot more like magic, or some sort of religious initiation than it does science. In fact, science rather presupposes that given ordered systems it is wholly likely that someone can learn enough to not only understand a body of knowledge but contribute meaningfully to it as well.
Sorry bud, there is no holy priesthood required for any field.
"I promise you that if I had just started picking up space systems books upon HS graduation it would have taken me at least seven years to learn what I learned in four because I would have been like a blind man stumbling around in the dark."
So your personal experience is now the standard by which we can measure all other human beings against?
"Add to that the value of social experience and good times had in college and I guarantee you that my university degree was well worth every penny I spent."
This is another subjective measurement. However even this is a flawed line of argumentation. You don't think people who do not go to college can have the same social experiences and good times that you did for a fraction of the cost?
"College in many cases is more like paying $100 for a new, amazing type of meal that nobody has cooked yet."
That is pure rubbish. If that were true then we, in the real world, would not have to invest so much time into retraining college graduates to actually be useful when it comes to real products.