OK, my $0.2: I went to college at age 16. Not because I was unnaturally intelligent or anything, but because:
- I hated high-school and was ready to drop out.
- I found a school called Simon's Rock (in western Massachusetts) that operates under the philosophy that the last two years of high school are essentually wasted, so why not start a four year BA program after 10th grade.
Anyway, after graduating in 1978 at age 20, I moved to NYC and worked at a succession of shitty, demoralizing jobs in the hi-tech industry, doing music at night. After 3-4 years of thism I had had enough. Having had a decent amount of on-the-job computer experience, I realized that if I became a programmer, I might at least be able to enjoy the work I did, even if it wasn't music.
So I started reading every magazine in existence (there were some great ones then, e.g., Programmer's Journal, Computer Language, Byte, DDJ, etc.), also K&R and other stuff. I also took a two-part night class on C programming at New York University -- this was (and remains) the extent of my formal training as a programmer. But the bulk of my learning has been self-taught and experiential. And that's how I've been making a living since the mid-80's. :-)
What's interesting in the context of this discussion is that while I didn't take time off before college (just the opposite!), that fact that I became a programmer deliberately, after a few years of "real" work experience, meant that I was highly motivated. My music degree was partially based on a rather abstract view of my future, whereas my change of career was based on a more realistic outlook. Fortunately, I quickly found out that, for me, writing code is just as much an aesthetic experience as writing music. (I still write and play music, BTW.)
In conclusion, I guess I could say that I would encourage people to take some time off before launching into their university-level work. Even though I did things somewhat differently, I benefitted from the time I spent in the non-academic world, in the sense that it allowed me to find out what I could do and what I wanted to do, and it gave me the motivation to learn in a very intentional way.