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Martin O'Malley outlines debt-free college plan

Martin O'Malley: Use federal money to hold down college tuition.

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley on Wednesday proposed using federal money to help states freeze and eventually reduce tuition rates at universities -- part of a broader effort to help students achieve debt-free college education within five years.

O'Malley, who as governor slowed tuition increases in Maryland, has been calling for debt-free college since he launched his presidential campaign in May. The Democrat, who has struggled to gain headway against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, outlined more details of the idea at an event in New Hampshire.

The pitch is geared to younger voters in a state that has the highest average debt in the nation. New Hampshire college graduates carry an average of nearly $33,000 in debt, according to the Institute for College Access & Success. Maryland, by contrast, is in the middle of the pack, at just more than $26,000.

O'Malley's plan relies in part on using federal matching dollars to encourage states to pursue some of his more ambitious goals, such as freezing tuition rates and eventually reducing tuition at four-year public schools to 10 percent of states' median incomes.

The plan calls on states to invest more money in higher education and maintain those levels even as tuition goes down. New Hampshire invests minimally in its public colleges and universities, and state aid for higher education is often on the chopping block in tight state budgets.

Tuition was a significant focus of O'Malley's time in Annapolis. The state froze tuition for four years and then set a 3 percent cap for increases in subsequent years during his time in office. The effort reduced Maryland's ranking from the state with the seventh-highest tuition to 23rd over the course of a few years.

But the effort also drew criticism from some who said freezing tuition was more beneficial to affluent families who don’t qualify for financial aid than to middle-income families that also might not qualify but still struggle to pay for the full cost of a college education.

O'Malley's proposal Wednesday also included 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.

The Associated Press contributed to this item.

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