Well I think one value of the degree is you don't have to start at the very bottom. Especially graduating from a place like MIT and Stanford, you have no problems finding a job paying $130,000+ with no experience. Really from any old CS school you'll make at
least $55-60k. Microsoft and Google used to hire college grads directly (apparently not anymore due to economy), and six figure salaries are not unheard of. But really the higher level your education the more they often pay. MSCS is worth more then BSCS, PHD
is worth the most.
You can work your way up to a salary like this without a degree. Some places though, specifically list a requirement as a CS degree. It's possible to get around that I guess, but usually they mean it. You risk having HR throwing your Resume away in seconds.
My girlfriend used to work in recruiting, that's basically what they did (and surprisingly a A LOT of computer people lack CS degrees, so it's a really easy way to narrow down applicants).
The other option is to start your own company, but with all these big corporations around, it takes a lot of effort to be competitive, I think.
I know of at least one instance where I was explicitly not considered for a position on the basis of not having a degree. Any knowledge or experience or other credentials I could claim were not considered relevant. As well, I'm sure that there have
been other cases where not having a degree was the reason I was not given serious consideration.
On the flip side, I really can't complain. The company I work for is fantastic, the pay is reasonable considering the local economics, and I feel that I get more respect I deserve from the people that I work with.
As I found out first-hand recently, finding qualified people is hard, regardless of claimed credentials. If a company has a process where they can find good talent, regardless of whether that talent comes with a degree, that may be a significant competitive
advantage over another company that will not consider non-degreed candidates.