Universities produce four basic things for their customers:
- A Consumptive knowledge good (things we enjoy learning about).
- A Productive knowledge good (Human capital in the traditional sense of boosting our skills as workers).
- Social capital (in the sense that we gain lots of productive social interactions and contacts in our university experience).
- A signal of our existing stock of human capital (this is not developing new human capital - think of our transcript as a stamp on our foreheads showing the world how smart we are, not what we learned).
Breaking these down, I think it's remarkably difficult to say a university education is worthwhile for most individuals but for point 4. And obviously signalling is a good reason for individuals only given an inefficient collective equilibrium. There are much cheaper ways to send signals.
Points 1 and 2 are legitimate reasons to go to college, but I don't see how they'd justify the expense in many cases. Recently, I read someone arguing that college should also be understood in the context of point 3, but that seems way off base to me.
Universities are not somehow unique in their ability to create that social capital. You get all the same sort of things in work environments, sports and hobby clubs, religion, you name it. You can get much of the same by working with other students even in non-traditional classes.
Granted, it's a different way of thinking, but that's exactly the point. All of those social interactions can provide equivalent or better opportunities for social capital development (I'd argue for better, because they generally are truly collaborative, voluntary interactions, often across large peer and non peer groups).
And best of all, they're largely efficient, market-based interactions rather than an ungodly expensive university experience that saddles the kid with a lifetime of debt and a bunch of nonsensical ivory tower hokum.
Point blank, I certainly made great friends in college and grad school, and learned how to interact with them. However, I think I would have made great friends and learned how to interact with them in a world where most people don't go to college but, say, do extended apprenticeships or go to work in a factory. I also made great friends and developed relationships being a young, 20-something professional working with lots of other young, 20-something professionals and lots of older, more experienced folks too.
One final note. This is especially true with non-peer groups and diversity. University experiences with this seem uniformly bad (in my observations as a teacher and a student there). I learned a lot more about class, race and gender/sexuality relations (at least in the positive sense of developing relationships and working with folks of other races and backgrounds) by working, following my interests, volunteering than through anything I did at school.