Martin O'Malley pitches debt-free college plan

Democratic presidential hopeful former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley in New Castle, N.H., Saturday, June 13, 2015.

Cheryl Senter, AP

NEW YORK Democratic presidential candidate Martin O'Malley laid out his plan to make college more affordable on Wednesday, setting a goal to provide all students access to a debt-free public college education within five years.

His plan, described in a white paper and formally introduced at a campaign stop in Manchester, New Hampshire, aims to slow the recent increase in the cost of tuition, while expanding federal loan programs and making it easier for students with loans to repay them.

It's an issue that O'Malley says he takes personally: O'Malley took out more than $300,000 in loans in order to pay for college for his two daughters, according to an aide.

O'Malley said he would ask states to immediately freeze tuition rates at public institutions and reconsider increased public funding for state colleges and universities. As an incentive, O'Malley promised to match state funding with federal dollars in the form of grants. The ultimate goal would be to limit tuition at four-year public universities to no more than 10 percent of the state median income and, at two-year public colleges, no more than five percent of the state median income.

To help students cover the cost of college - both tuition and non-tuition costs - O'Malley proposed increasing Pell Grants for low- and middle- income students and an expansion of the federal work-study program to allow 2 million students to participate, three times the current number.

For students who have borrowed, O'Malley said he would automatically enroll them in income-based repayment programs. Students would have option to opt out and students and their parents would also have the option to refinance their loans at lower interest rates.

Hillary Clinton, the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, has yet to roll out her plan to make college more accessible and affordable, but it's an issue that she mentions regularly on the campaign trail.

"We now have more college debt than we do outstanding credit card debt," Clinton said Tuesday at a house party in Ottumwa, Iowa. "It is a drag not only on individuals, it's a drag on the whole economy because if you're dragging that around, that debt, you can't start a new business, you can't buy a new home, you can't even get married."

She has often voiced her support for President Obama's plan to make two years of community college free and, early in her campaign, Clinton visited a community college in New Hampshire where she stressed the need to make its programs more attractive to young people facing the high cost of education.

Clinton is expected to introduce more details of her plan in the coming weeks.

Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator whose populist message has recently gained popularity in New Hampshire, has introduced legislation to make public colleges and universities tuition-free nationwide.

"What you have in America today," Sanders said recently at a town hall in Durham, New Hampshire, "is kids in the fifth or sixth grade who understand in their gut that no matter how hard they work, how well they do in school, they're never going to make it to college because their families don't have the money. But when we say to those children all over America, 'you are going to be able to go to college,' that is a revolution."

Sanders, who has also favors giving students the option to refinance loans at low interest rates, has said that he would cover the cost of his plan - $70 billion in state and federal assistance per year - with a new tax on Wall Street.

O'Malley's plan does not specifically outline how he would pay for his proposed increase in federal investment in education, but campaign aides say he is considering a number of options, including closing tax loopholes for corporations and increasing taxes on capital gains for individuals.