MANCHESTER, N.H. (AP) — Democratic presidential candidate Martin O'Malley laid out a plan Wednesday to allow public college and university students to graduate without any tuition debt, saying he has the strongest record of any candidate at reducing the cost of higher education.
"Making college more affordable for more people is actually really good for the economy," O'Malley said. "Our economy isn't money. It's people."
O'Malley presented his plan at a roundtable event in New Hampshire, telling the group that Maryland's state universities froze tuition for four straight years during his tenure as governor.
The policy presentation comes as O'Malley has struggled to catch fire with Democrats in the early voting state, who so far are preoccupied with rivals Hillary Rodham Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
But focusing on college costs could help him make inroads with younger voters in New Hampshire, where the average student loan debt burden is the highest in the nation.
Sanders has called for making college tuition free, introducing legislation in the Senate to tax financial transactions to pay for it. Clinton has emphasized the need to lower college costs, but has yet to be specific on how she would do so.
O'Malley said he agrees with Sanders' idea of taxing financial transactions, but said having the federal government pay for tuition won't reduce college costs.
"If you simply cut a check for tuition, you're going to see tuitions go up and up and up and eventually we all foot that bill," he said.
O'Malley's plan instead focuses on reducing tuition at state schools, providing incentives in the form of matching grants for states to invest more heavily in their public colleges and universities, and making it easier for students to transfer credits and take courses online to complete their degrees in a timely manner.
His more ambitious goals would require heavy buy-in from the states. His plan, for example, calls on four-year public schools to lower tuition to 10 percent of states' median income while also enticing states to increase their share of funding for their public universities. State aid for higher education has been cut in many states in recent years as states struggle with tight budgets.
"By setting a national goal, you make state actions much more open and transparent so that citizens know and citizens can apply the pressure," O'Malley said.
O'Malley's plan includes familiar policy ideas, such as allowing students to refinance their loans and automatically enrolling people in income-based repayment plans. He is also proposing an increase in Pell Grants and a tripling of the number of work-study jobs to help students cover college costs beyond tuition, such as room and board.
One participant in the roundtable told O'Malley she is the first person in her family to go to college and is now saddled with $100,000 in debt that her parents can't help her repay. A local lawyer said it took him more than four years to complete school because he had difficulty transferring credits between schools. Now, he is too burdened with his own debt to help his daughter pay for college.
"Multiply these stories by thousands and thousands and thousands," O'Malley said. "Then it's not quite a mystery why our economy's not growing at the pace that it used to."
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