Jim Cole / AP

O’Malley unveils plan for reducing student debt

College affordability becomes major presidential campaign issue as former Maryland governor pitches debt-free education

Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley released his plan for making debt-free higher education accessible to all Americans on Wednesday, making him the second Democratic presidential candidate to release an ambitious proposal for tackling the rising price of college.

O’Malley’s plan sets a goal “that all students have access to a high-quality, debt-free college education within five years, attainable at any in-state college or university,” according to a white paper on the candidate’s website.

To attain that goal, O’Malley proposes a slate of policies that includes increasing Pell Grants, freezing tuition rates, and increased funding for public higher education. O’Malley’s plan also calls for granting all debt-ridden former students the ability to refinance their loans.

In May, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a socialist who is seeking the Democratic nomination for president, tackled the student debt issue when his Senate office unveiled a proposal to eliminate college tuition at public universities. Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton has not yet released her strategy for reducing student debt, but she is expected to do so soon. In drafting her plan, Clinton has reportedly consulted with policy analysts connected to liberal Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

Student debt is likely to be a major issue in the 2016 Democratic primary. Younger voters are an important constituency for the party, as college students and recent graduates face debt loads significantly higher than those held by prior generations. Between 1978 and 2012, college tuition costs shot up by 1,120 percent, studies show. The most recent class of graduating college seniors holds the record for highest average student loan debt, at $35,051 per student.

Liberal groups such as the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC) have spent months calling on Democratic candidates to work on reducing student debt. The group, in a Wednesday statement, hailed O’Malley’s proposal as “the most progressive plan to tackle crippling student debt offered so far on the presidential campaign trail.”

“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,” said PCCC co-founder Adam Green. “We hope Bernie Sanders and others endorse this game changing goal of debt-free college as well.”

A PCCC spokeswoman said the group believes Bernie Sanders’s plan is less progressive than O’Malley’s because the senator’s plan focuses solely on tuition and not other expenses that can add to students’ debt burden.

President Obama has released a proposal of his own aimed at improving college affordability. In January the president introduced a plan to guarantee two free years of community college for all students who maintain a certain grade-point average.

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