With an annual investment of $1,200, starting in 1975, a family sending a son or daughter to college this fall would have generated an education fund of about $45,450, a hefty sum by most standards.

That would pay for only two years at Harvard University.

And it would fall short several thousand dollars for four years at Spelman College in Atlanta.

A public school would be more in line with that budget: A state resident attending the University of Maryland would have $14,000 left in the fund after four years.

Escalating education costs are more likely than ever to play a role in the college choices of students. And families in the Washington area are taking what once would have been extraordinary steps to pay them.

Thelma Majette, 39, a mother of three who lives near East Capitol and 49th streets SE, knew she wanted her children to attend college.

Two years ago, knowing that this fall she would have two sons in universities, she took a second job. Now, her days start before 7 a.m. when she prepares for her regular job as a secretary at the Labor Department. At 5:30 p.m., when most of her coworkers go home, Majette heads across town to Washington Hospital Center. She works there as an admissions clerk until after midnight.

With nearly two full-time jobs, Majette's annual salary is about $40,000.

On that, she maintains her household and pays for her older son to attend the University of the District of Columbia and her younger one to go to Clark Atlanta University, where he is a freshman.

"My days are very, very long, and my nights are short," Majette said. "But this is what I have to do."

Majette's story is a new twist to the old tale of mothers scrubbing floors or washing dishes to pay for their children's education.

But now the extra work has moved from lower-income households to middle- and upper-middle-income homes.

A second mortage is a common option. Entering the military to take advantage of veterans benefits is another.

Families go years without vacations. Companies bring in financial experts to make employees aware of college costs and various savings plans.

Some families guide students to community colleges for a year or two to save money.

Angelo I. Castelli, the top litigator in a Landover law firm who resigned from the Prince George's County school board in June, has a daughter who is a freshman at Villanova University in Philadelphia.

She has a brother who is a senior at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.

Castelli and his wife have not taken a vacation in two years. They've cut out most social activities. He has taken a second mortgage on his family's Oxon Hill house and has withdrawn part of his retirement funds.

All of this "specifically to cover education expenses," he said.

In the last decade, tuition increased an average of 9.3 percent a year at public schools, 9.8 percent at private institutions.

For the 1990-1991 academic year, local private colleges are charging an average of $15,400 and public colleges an average of $6,200 for state residents for tuition, fees and room and board.

For people who have saved little money toward college, the decision sometimes is to delay seeking a bachelor's degree.

Dwayne Johnson, of Northeast Washington, intended to go to college after his senior year at Archbishop Carroll High School in the District. But last spring, after researching how much he would have to pay to attend the schools that interested him, he chose to enter the military.

"I couldn't get enough money to pay for college, so I decided to join the Air Force," Johnson said.

The Air Force will pay 75 percent of Johnson's tuition costs while he is enlisted.

If he leaves the service after a four-year commitment, Johnson will have $10,800 at his disposal for education.

For the most part, college officials said, parents and their children have been slow to realize just how much college costs have increased.

Charles W. Bross, an investment executive at Paine Webber in Rockville, will conduct 11 seminars on planning for college this month.

"What we have found is that if parents set up the investment so they have access to the cash, they do use it when emergencies pop up," Bross said.

That's what happened to Barbara Jones, who lives in the Woodridge neighborhood of Northeast Washington. Jones started saving years ago to pay for the college education of her two daughters.

"I started out really good," Jones said. "Then bills . . . emergencies started piling up. I should have put it where I couldn't touch it."

Still, Jones and a daughter were able to shave thousands of dollars from the cost of the daughter's freshman year this fall at the University of South Florida.

First, Jones said, her daughter, Lawana, had to choose a school near the family home or relatives with whom she could live.

By choosing the Tampa college, Lawana Jones saved about $3,000 on room and board.

Because Jones knew where to look for college money, her daughter received $500 from her church and $500 from the Masonic Temple. And Lawana Jones got $1,000 from the D.C. government because she graduated in the top 10 percent of her high school class.

While no one knows how much college costs will increase in coming years, financial planners said they have identified a group of people likely to be hit especially hard when the time comes to pay for a college education.

Dubbed the "squeeze generation," they are people, who because of careers, have had children at older ages.

Now in their late thirties to early forties, this group will be faced simultaneously with paying for their children's college, caring for elderly parents and preparing for their own retirements.