• source: economic opportunity institute
  • Such a deal: What a selection of state lawmakers paid their freshman year in college, adjusted for inflation in 2012 dollars.

"It's still a heck of a value," state Senate "Majority" Leader Rodney Tom said in October about skyrocketing tuition at Washington's public universities. Yeah, to somebody who lives in a Medina mansion, maybe. Or better yet, somebody who still lives in 1981.

Back when Tom entered his freshman year at the University of Washington, he paid a total of $1,059 in annual tuition and fees. But that was more than three decades ago. Inflation, right?

Not exactly. Adjusted for inflation, Tom's freshman year at the UW cost just $2,507 in 2012 dollars. That's actually a couple hundred dollars a year less than what House Majority Leader Frank Chopp paid for his freshman year a decade earlier, and about one-fifth the price UW students are paying today for the 2012-2013 academic year.

Now that's a heck of a value. And the same is true of the dozens of state lawmakers who got where they are today thanks to an affordable higher education at one of Washington state's public universities, colleges, and technical schools. Indeed, just to avoid accusations of cherry-picking the chart above includes Senator Joe Fain, the legislature's most recent state university grad, who paid just $4,793 in inflation adjusted tuition and fees just 13 academic years ago. But Fain is the exception. Most sitting lawmakers paid considerably less.

And to be absolutely clear: It's not the cost of a college education that's been skyrocketing, but the price. Adjusted for inflation, total spending per full-time student at Washington's public universities has remained relatively flat over the past two decades: About $18,000 a year. But as state funding has tanked—dropping from 70 percent of total spending per full-time student a decade ago to only 30 percent today—tuition has been hiked to make up the difference.

This was not due to inflation. This was due to a political decision by a generation of lawmakers who got theirs, and then decided to pull up the ladder behind them. Something to remember the next Rodney Tom attempts to convince current and future students that they are still getting "a heck of a value."