I started programming in basic in 3rd grade. I graduated high school in 1996, spent three years in tech support and started programming professionally in 1999. According to my salary I never missed anything by skipping college, but I always felt like I missed out. Two years ago, while working as a telecommuter, I decided to pursue a degree and started taking classes at community college. The math and physics courses opened my mind to ideas that I never really put much thought into. College opened my eyes to ideas that I never would have studied on my own. I quit my job and enrolled at University of Illinois this spring.
While I have not yet pursued research, I know that there are many opportunities for undergraduates to research in computer science. Professors typically want junior or senior undergrads because they have enough coursework in the fundamentals to be useful. Right now there is a huge push from the school to get experienced freshman and sophomores into research. They have a funded mentorship program that pays graduate students to work with one or two undergrads on their research. The problem is that they can't get enough underclassmen to apply to the program.
Many of the people that post on Hacker News that post a low opinion of the college education were educated in college themselves. Only a very small minority of posters have seen both sides of the coin. I have become a completely different person in the last two years since I started college. This experience has been far more costly for me, at 35, than it is for a typical college-age student. If I add my tuition, fees, and expenses to the opportunity cost, due to lost salary, I am paying $140k a year to go to college. I have no regrets; this has been the best experience of my life.
You've probably heard the old saying that youth is wasted on the young. I think college is also wasted on the young. Those that denigrate college were not yet self-aware enough to realize the benefit they gained from that experience.
The fact that you have "seen both side" is exceptionally helpful.