Everyone here is making excellent points, and I myself am a proponent of college for students who have the smarts and work ethic to graduate college, and the work ethic to pursue internships, job opportunities, etc. My arguments above were more for the average student who is just "gliding" by going to college, because it is "expected."
A strong student, capable of finding full time employment and responsible with their repayment plan, should have no problems with going to college. In fact, like many of you are saying, it is a beneficial endeavor. I am not trying to suggest that college is a bad decision - only that qualified individuals should attend college.
To prove this side of my view, that college can be beneficial, and to show the merit in many of your perspectives, I modified my method to take into account the idealistic scenarios people here are posting, such as immediate full-time job post-graduation, stable employment for the first 10-years following college, and being able to contribute to both retirement and student loans simultaneously. I even took into account the savings issue for Person B, and assumed no late fees. I also included Kythia's suggestion of looking at the influence of inflation rates on salary growth, debt burden, and investments. I took a bit of an unconventional approach to this (because this is not my field), and came up with some values. I would appreciate a healthy discussion about this.
For the sake of fair play, I assumed both had an equal 40 year time period of working full-time - which is probably unlikely, but again, for an "ideal" scenario for a college student, I figured this would be worth doing.
Details about Person B's student loan:
$17,500 borrowed at 6.8% interest rate.
Repayment plan: 120 months at a payment of $201.39 for a total of $24,166.87
Because we are purely talking about earnings here, and the buying power of said earnings, I decided to convert all dollar values in this discussion into "today's dollars." In other words, if I say the person has $100 in 2053, that has the same buying power as $100 today.
So what I did was calculate the pay grade increase for Person A, and Person B. I assumed both would be working 40 years. The pay scales were 16,000 - 30,000 and 24,000 - 56000, respectively. So what I did, was take the difference of each range, and divide by the number of years working. So in other words, 14,000 divided by 40 = $350 assumed salary rise per year towards the peak salary. At the same time, 32,000 divided by 40 = $800. I then multiplied each of these derived values by 0.97 to get the "today's dollar" value of each year's pay raise, factoring in a 3% inflation rate. Each year, 3% was essentially 'removed' from the previous year's pay bump, due to less buying power. Obvious real life isn't this idealistic, but it is a model that starts at a starting salary towards a peak salary. Utilizing these figures, I calculated salary per year over their 40 year work span.
I assumed that Person A was investing 5% of their yearly salary (which has already accounted for inflation). For Person B, I took people's perspectives here into consideration, and said he/she invested 1% of their yearly salary for the first 10 years working (due to making student loan payments). The student loan payments were decreased by 3% for each year of the 10 year repayment, since inflation was decreasing its value. After the 10 years, Person B also continued to invest 5% of their yearly salary, just like Person A.
My calculations yielded a "today's value" of $138,834.8345 for Person B and $125,698.2272 for Person A which shows that college is absolutely a great investment if you have the smarts, and are fortune to have stable employment afterwards. I need to go for now, but when I get time this evening, I'll try to run the opposite set of numbers for differential work spans, potential spurts of unemployment, and effects of late fees on loans.
Also, I had a stock market growth rate of 7% along with buying power depreciation of 3% for net growth of 4%.
I have an Excel spreadsheet, but obviously I can't post it here. Great discussion so far.