WASHINGTON - As a student at Ohio University in 1975, Margaret Lyons paid her $150 quarterly tuition ––$650 in today's dollars when adjusted for inflation –– by working as a waitress during the summer. A generation later, when her two children graduated from the same school in Athens, their summer jobs couldn't even begin to pay for the $2,400 per-quarter tuition.

WASHINGTON - As a student at Ohio University in 1975, Margaret Lyons paid her $150 quarterly tuition ––$650 in today's dollars when adjusted for inflation –– by working as a waitress during the summer.

A generation later, when her two children graduated from the same school in Athens, their summer jobs couldn't even begin to pay for the $2,400 per-quarter tuition.

"They couldn't make that kind of money if they tried,'' said Lyons, 62, who lives in Bexley.

That type of sticker shock is crushing hundreds of thousands of families across the country as they cope with the harshreality of skyrocketing college costs.

Since 1978, costs for tuition and room and board at private universities - adjusted for inflation - have increased by 403 percent, while public universities have seen a 428 percent increase for tuition and room and board, according to an analysis by the College Board Advocacy Policy Center.

At Ohio State University, which has frozen tuition costs four times since 2006, tuition has leaped from $915 annually 35 years ago (or $3,276 in 2013 dollars) to $10,037, an increase of 326 percent after inflation.

The rising cost of college - coupled with a tight job market - has left many graduates with low job prospects and high debt. Although escalating costs have caused many students to question the value of their college education, Lyons said students have little choice but to pay the price.

Kelsey Redmond, a Cincinnati native who every year spends the equivalent of a new Toyota Prius on her education at Miami University in Oxford, agreed, saying, "It is so competitive with jobs. If it's just a high-school degree, you can't really move up too high or get a job in the first place."

According to experts, there are multiple upward pressures on tuition costs, ranging from state-of-the-art computerized classrooms that Lyons could not have imagined in the 1970s, rising salaries for professors and administrators, more sophisticated health and counseling programs for students, and an "arms race" among schools for the best dormitories, gymnasiums and dining halls.

Those increased costs come at a time when states are cutting money for public universities, which transfer the costs of higher education to parents and students.

"Most of the time, people want one simple explanation so that it's better understood and it's easily fixed," said David Creamer, vice president for finance and business services at Miami. "It's more complicated than that."

Yet even as 75 percent of people say college is too expensive for most Americans to afford, 94 percent of parents say they expect their children to go to college, according to the Pew Research Center.

"Students are beating down the doors to get in," said Ron Ehrenberg, an economist at Cornell University. "There's no reason to hold down price."

Some schools fear that families are nearing a breaking point: If tuition continues to climb, students may forgo college or go elsewhere.

"I don't think our university is at that point, but essentially the question is, what path are we on?" said Chad Mitchell, the budget director at Ohio University. "Within the last few years, there's been a lot of scrutiny around costs."

University officials blame state lawmakers, who have curbed spending on higher education. A dozen years ago, the state paid 44 percent of instruction costs at Ohio University. Today, the state's share covers just 30 percent.

OSU officials also blame decreases in state aid, but university data show only a marginal decline. The state in 1978 gave the university $378 million for instruction, in today's dollars. Though the number has fluctuated, it's now at $332 million.

"If we really care about preserving access (to public universities), we have to figure out ways to either restore state support to the public institutions or figure out ways to dramatically reduce cost," said Ehrenberg of Cornell.

As states curb money to universities, students are demanding more from their schools. Mitchell said that "student expectations are that they're going to step on campus and they're going to have wireless access wherever they walk on campus."

Last year in Forbes magazine, Paul Partridge, co-founder of CompleteCollegePlanning-Solutions.com, compiled a list of items that contribute to the high costs of colleges: state-of-the-art recreation facilities with Olympic-size swimming pools and rock-climbing walls; "award-winning" food in dining halls; endless new construction; students earning multiple majors; technology everywhere from washing machines to wireless Internet; and the push to study abroad and extra resources such as writing help centers.

"Today, a modern classroom is a cross between an IMAX theater and Houston mission control," Partridge said. "When I went to school ... there was a blackboard and a piece of chalk."

Students' expectations aren't the only reason universities continue to spend on nicer and newer facilities. Ehrenberg said universities are in a constant race to be the best.

This is especially true for private universities, which engage in what Ehrenberg dubs the "Cookie Monster analogy." Just as the Cookie Monster wants to have as many cookies as possible, so does the university want to have the best faculty, the best student financial aid and the best facilities, he said.

Staff costs also contribute. Twenty-two years ago, the president of Ohio State earned $350,000 a year - $600,047 in today's dollars - according to Richard Vedder, economics professor emeritus at Ohio University and director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, which studies college costs. In fiscal year 2012, former OSU President E. Gordon Gee's total compensation was nearly $1.9 million.

Additionally, high pay for top administrators (such as $750,000 for OSU's vice president of finance) adds millions to the university budget, and as much as $200 to each student's bill, Vedder said.

In addition, Vedder contends that the federal student loan programs have had a perverse impact on costs. As the loan programs have grown exponentially, there is little incentive for colleges to lower costs because administrators figure students can borrow what they need.

But Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, dismisses this argument, saying programs such as Pell Grants and student loans are the difference between getting an education and not getting one for many students.

Melanie Corrigan, director of national initiatives for the American Council on Education, said "study after study" has shown no correlation between tuition and borrowing: "The cost of milk has gone up, too, but no one is going to suggest that the cost of milk drives up college tuition."

With frustration at high college costs boiling over, parents and students are convinced they have little choice.

"I think it's a big business and they make money, and I guess the middle class, upper class feel like they have to do this," Lyons said. "It's almost engrained in everybody: You're going to have to go to college if you want to amount to anything."

Meagan Pant of the Dayton Daily News contributed to this story.