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O'Malley rolls out sweeping debt-free college plan

Trailing in a distant third place behind Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, O'Malley is hoping to make his debt-free college proposal the progressive standard.
Martin O'Malley
Democratic presidential hopeful former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, facing left, does a meet and greet with local residents attending Market Square Days in Portsmouth, N.H., June 13, 2015. 

Finding a way to make higher education a debt-free option for students is becoming an increasingly important issue in the Democratic presidential primary, with former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley rolling out an ambitious proposal Wednesday to keep college costs down.

With nearly 70% of American students now graduating with debt, many with tens of thousands of dollars in loans that will take years to pay off, almost every Democratic presidential has vowed to make reforming college financing a priority.

O’Malley will formally roll out the plan in New Hampshire Wednesday, but a white paper shared by his campaign lays out the basic framework.

The Democratic presidential candidate starts by letting students already owing money to refinance their debt, which is currently not allowed, and would push students towards income-based repayment plans, with loan forgiveness options. To keep costs down, he calls on states to freeze tuition rates and increase state funding to public universities, supplemented by boosted matching grants from the federal government.

Related: O'Malley lays out foreign policy vision

The ultimate goal would be get the cost of tuition down to no more than 10% of a state’s median income at four-year public universities, and no more than 5% of median income at two-year public colleges.

Trailing in a distant third place behind Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, O'Malley is hoping to make his debt-free college proposal the progressive standard against which all others will be measured. His plan appears to be the most sweeping yet, going beyond even Sanders’ proposal in one way by aiming to tackle the costs of education beyond tuition alone.

What sets O’Malley’s plan apart from others is that it would also attempt to tackle non-tuition costs, like room and board. To do that, O’Malley proposes increasing federal Pell Grants and tripling the federal work-study program to let two million students participate.

He also calls for the federal government to use federal money as leverage to encourage colleges to increase on-time graduation rates, improve education quality, and direct financial aid toward students who need it most.

For mid-career students, he proposes expanding child care. And for all, he suggests creating different pathways to graduation, including alternatives like online courses and blended education. On top of that, he proposes strengthening how high school prepare students for college.

He would also crack down on for-profit colleges, which have recently come into the crosshairs of the Obama administration.

O’Malley’s proposal is bold, but the devil will likely be in the details. It would be difficult to dramatically increase federal funding in an environment when Congress and many state governments have cut education spending, instead of expanded it. And with public education almost entirely controlled by the states, it might be difficult for Washington to assert its will and make major changes like demanding a tuition freeze.

But the proposal hopes to set a benchmark. As governor of Maryland, O’Malley essentially froze tuition at state schools, letting it rise only with inflation.

Frontrunner Hillary Clinton’s campaign has hinted that they will might roll out a debt-free college plan this summer, potentially in coming weeks.

Sanders, meanwhile, has for weeks been touting his own proposal, which would provide higher education to students at public four-year colleges tuition free. It’s been one of his biggest applause lines on the stump.

President Obama softened the ground with a proposal to make all two-year community college education free.

Adam Green, the co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which helped put debt-free college on the map, said O'Malley is "spot on" to make his plan apply to all public colleges and universities. 

"To her credit, Hillary Clinton has mentioned debt-free college multiple times on the campaign trail, and Americans await a bold policy speech on debt-free college in the near future. We hope Bernie Sanders and others endorse this game changing goal of debt-free college as well," he added.