CONCORD, N.H. (AP) -- 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.