Maybe it’s just reflexive thinking, a subconscious shift towards cynicism that no longer registers with us in the newsroom as it’s taking over.

But when the contents of SB873 — the Access to Affordable College Education Act — came across the state legislature’s website, it immediately gave off a perceptible stink.

Unlike some of the bills foisted upon decent and hardworking North Carolinians over the last few sessions, this one does exactly what it says: lowers tuition at a handful of schools to the UNC System to make it more affordable.

Way more affordable: The proposed tuition at Elizabeth City State, Fayetteville State University, Winston-Salem State University, UNC-Pembroke and Western Carolina University would be $500 per semester for in-state residents, down from an average of more than $3,000 for those schools. That’s like an 85 percent discount, which sounds incredibly generous, and indicative of a real shift in values by a General Assembly whose members typically drag their heels on calls for investments in education.

But take a look at the schools affected: Three of the five are HBCUs. And UNC-Pembroke serves the large Lumbee population of Robeson County. Western Carolina’s inclusion on the list seems designed, if anything, to provide racial cover.

The more cynical among us might also ask: How are these school supposed to meet their financial obligations with a tuition drop of 85 percent?

And this is not an investment in education. It’s a divestment.

Anyone who’s ever heard a Republican describe shrinking something down until it’s small enough to drown in a bathtub might be suspicious of a proposal like this, particularly when at least one of the schools, Elizabeth City State, was on the chopping block as recently as 2014.

There’s good stuff in this bill, too, most notably a freeze on tuition and fees for the duration of each student’s education — fees at those five schools averaged more than $2,000 a year — and an overall reduction in fees from 10 to 25 percent. And it establishes a full merit scholarship at NC A&T University and NC Central University, the two other HBCUs in the UNC System, for 50 students a year.

There’s one other provision: an allowance to increase the percentage of out-of-state students at the five targeted schools up from its current rate of 18 percent, which one might think could cover any budget shortfalls these schools might experience — Western Carolina, for example, charges non-residents more than $14,000 a year in tuition.

But SB873 drops that number, too — down to $2,500, giving the out-of-state kids a discount of more than 80 percent at Western Carolina.

And so we find ourselves asking the question that conservatives like Sen. Tom Apodaca, who introduced the bill, are supposed to be posing: Who is going to pay for all this?

It’s possible the answer might be: No one.

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  • Terry L

    I think the NCGA’s plan is to starve them of funds (similar to the public schools plan), then drop these universities from the UNC system, and turn them into community colleges.