I was in the situation like you few years ago. I dropped out, chosen the work (interesting, practice, money) instead of studies (not so interesting, theory, debt?).
Some years have passed. Now I see I became interested in so many deeper things of IT that I have to remember the math from the university anyway... And physics too... And more... Because practical tasks started to caught theory in few years.
Few things to mention:
- IEEE Standard 754 for Binary Floating-Point Arithmetic
- Partial response maximum likelihood (PRML)
- ...and much much more topics where you have to know the math to understand the whole working system.
...this would say you have to study.
However, most of IT certification programs available today (Microsoft, CompTia, others) will not issue the certificate for life time. The certificate you earned will be valid for about 2 years. There are many reasons for that...
And some of certificates will not be issued for you if you do not have the required hands-on experience (for example, PMI).
The hands-on requirement to entrance and expiration to quite ensures you are moving forward all the time.
University studies usually takes about 3-4 years to complete. Call me the way you like, but I would say that universities are sort of kingdoms nowadays. We have some countries with Kings and Queens living in, but does the system of that kingdom works the way it worked centuries ago? Not really.
The first book was printed at about 400 years ago.
The internet was invented at about 40 years ago.
The smartphone was invented at about 20 years ago.
Then the cloud connecting all...
Universities were established for the purpose of better education. So the strongest part of that were:
- Better connections within circle of old/new smart people (hold that: google is invented at 1996, facebook - at 2003, github - at 2007, - does that changed the quality/speed of connecting?)
- Better availability of materials as there was only few books to learn from (hold that: PDF, DOCX, XML, Khan Academy, Lynda, Coursera, notebooks, mobile phones and even decent printers printing 20 pages per minute, - does that changed the availability of materials?)
- Sharing resources (hold that: cloud computing, crowd funding platforms like gofundme or kickstarter, the whole model of sharing/access economy, - does that change the situation?)
- And much more good progress has been made.. I would even say that majority of universities teaching IT cannot adapt to that progress so fast as needed...
To conclude everything, I would say that there is balancing between theory and practice always. And do not mix practice with working to the company (as you can freelance, volunteer, do your own open projects or join already existing open projects). And do not mix theory with institution (as you can buy any book the student or even lecturer use in university, you can be at the class by browsing youtube or participating in webinars)...
And of course, the human thing (talking, meeting face to face, etc.) is always available as the ticket to and back does not cost millions... You could find tickets to cross the ocean and back for much less than you earn per month if you work for both continents.
But. If you would like to work in a kingdom (in a kingdom literally, or in a local government institution, or in a university) then you need to have that paper saying you are good (diploma), because kingdom do not understand you can learn from on-line societies (github, stackexchange, webinars, etc.), fly to there and there weekly and so on.
p.s. Sorry for my grammar.