As Hillary Clinton finds herself facing a surprisingly strong challenge from Vermont's Bernie Sanders for the Democratic presidential nomination, former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley is quickly becoming the odd man out in the race for the White House.

I have to admit I've never been a big fan of O'Malley's, nor has about 75 percent of Carroll County, if you consider the votes cast here in his two successful runs for governor. Nationally, he's not a lot better. Most national pundits and, more importantly, the opinion polls, don't give O'Malley a real chance to even sniff his party's nomination. Clinton seemed to be the anointed one to get it until Sanders started connecting with younger voters. Time will tell if Clinton and the big money that's behind her can hold him off.

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But let's get back to O'Malley and the reason I'm actually glad he's in the race. O'Malley, in an attempt of his own to reach younger voters and their parents, is bringing the issue of college tuition reform front and center to the political debate.

As the parent of a 16-year-old, I'm staring down the barrel of four years of out-of-this-world tuition costs. In-state tuition at a state school such as University of Maryland, College Park, is about $11,000, not including books or room and board. Compared to other options, it's by most accounts a relatively inexpensive college education. For someone like my daughter, who gets great grades and at the moment wants to be an engineer, I could be looking at an out-of-state tuition that could be closer to $35,000 to $60,000 a year. Again this doesn't include books and living expenses.

Like O'Malley, I believe education is one of the most important services a government can make available to its citizens. The economic pinch that college puts on students and their parents can be debilitating. The question is, how do we fix it? It's a multilayered problem, so it's good that O'Malley and Sanders are making this a focal point of their campaigns.

Under O'Malley's plan, he hopes federal matching dollars would persuade states to spend more on higher education. The effect would first freeze tuition rates at state-run four-year schools and then eventually start lowering costs for students. But like most "progressive" plans, it seems to rely on more federal government spending. This is where O'Malley and I somewhat part ways.

We all know there's no such thing as a free lunch. And we don't have Oprah standing in front of us saying, "You get a free college education! And you get a free college education!" The solution to this and other problems isn't always to throw more money at the issue.

That got me thinking about an approach by then-Gov. Bob Ehrlich, O'Malley's longtime political rival, in which he called on Maryland colleges to take a look at finding savings in their own budgets before automatically asking for a tuition hike. At one point, Ehrlich took aim at tenured university professors for not teaching enough classes during the week and still pulling down significant salaries.

Whatever the solution, we need one soon. As politicians continue to debate ways to help the middle class, there might be no better way than getting a handle on college tuition. For that, we should be grateful that O'Malley has broached the subject. Maybe others, even others with a greater chance at winning their parties' nomination for president, will join the discussion.

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