Democrat Martin O’Malley is calling the high cost of college a “crisis” as he lays out a goal of debt-free tuition for all students at public colleges and universities within five years if elected president.
O’Malley, a former governor of Maryland, will outline his plan Wednesday at an event in the early-voting state of New Hampshire. O’Malley is struggling to catch fire with Democratic voters who are preoccupied with rivals Hillary Rodham Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Focusing on college costs could help him make inroads with younger voters in New Hampshire, where the average student loan debt burden is the highest in the nation. But he’s not alone in addressing the problem. Sanders is calling for free college tuition and has introduced legislation in the Senate to tax financial transactions to pay for it. Clinton has emphasized the need to lower college costs but has yet to be specific on policy.
Roughly a dozen voters will share their struggles with student debt in a discussion with O’Malley before he outlines his debt-free college plan.
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.
O’Malley’s plan includes 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.
O’Malley, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders all sent video messages to the teachers, who were gathered at the National Education Associations Representative Assembly.
In her address, Clinton used a theme of teachers unlocking potential in students. She talked about how teachers had encouraged her and her mother at a young age. “Every semester, in schools across the country, you multiply my mother’s story by millions,” Clinton told the teachers. “When we invest in our children, we do invest in our country’s future, and we need to do more of that.” Clinton promised high quality preschool, a doubling of spending on the federal Head Start program, and making college affordable for every single person.
Sanders struck a more ideological tone. “We need some fundamental changes in our national priorities,” Sanders said. “Instead of giving tax breaks to billionaires, maybe we invest in our children, maybe we invest in education.” He promised to make progress on fixing No Child Left Behind, on universal pre-K and on free college tuition. He also called teachers the real heroes and heroines of the country.
O’Malley tried to strike an optimistic note. “I believe, like you, that America’s best days can still be in front of us,” O’Malley said. He didn’t make any specific promises about what he would do as president, but O’Malley touted the pro-union reforms he implemented in Maryland while serving as governor. For example, spending more on public education and making college more affordable. “This is what we do as Americans, to do more in every generation, to give our children a future with more opportunity, rather than less.”
NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia was glad the three candidates took the time to address the union’s members. “Recommending a candidate for president of the United States is a civic responsibility that educators take very seriously,” said Eskelsen Garcia. “Going through the process to pick the right candidate that represents our values and sets the right priorities is critically important.” Eskelsen Garcia has met privately with Clinton, O’Malley and Sanders as part of the NEA’s endorsement process for the 2016 presidential election.