Democratic presidential candidate and former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley speaks to guests at the Iowa Democratic Party's Hall of Fame Dinner on July 17, 2015 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He recently met with leaders of historically black colleges and universities to talk about making college debt-free. National Journal

College affordability has already become a key talking point for presidential candidates looking to reel in elusive young voters and their families.

Martin O'Malley, the Democrat who knew Hillary Clinton would emerge as his party's front-runner early but probably didn't expect Bernie Sanders to develop such a following, is looking to set himself apart from the rest of the field.

While most of the candidates have made general overtures to would-be college-goers about the need to rein in college costs, the former Maryland governor has published a fairly detailed proposal to help people attend public universities debt-free in the next five years,

The plan involves tying student-loan repayments to borrowers' income, slashing tuition, expanding Pell grants, incentivizing colleges to help students graduate on time, and promoting online and other nontraditional learning models.

It's a smart move on O'Malley's part, since much of the conversation around making college affordable centers on how to expand access to populations who have traditionally been left out — students of color among them.

On Tuesday, O'Malley headed to South Carolina to pitch the idea to historically black colleges and universities, known as HBCUs.

Touting his record as governor, O'Malley has sought to paint himself as a candidate who recognizes the importance of HBCUs. While tuition growth in Maryland during his tenure was low compared to other states and he increased funding to HBCUs, the state has faced criticism for historically underfunding the schools.

"[W]e must be mindful of their role, especially given the fact that greater numbers of those who traditionally attend historically black colleges and universities are the first in their family to go to college," he said after a lunch with HBCU leaders that included representatives from schools like Benedict College and Allen University.

"They face greater economic burdens and come from families of more humble means. So in our plan we were very mindful of that, and as we continue to refine it, I think it important that we always link the cause of our community college to the cause and mission of our historically black colleges and universities."

The meeting was closed to press. Phone calls and emails to six of the state's HBCUs requesting comment from people who attended the meeting were not immediately returned, but a spokeswoman from Allen University said she heard it went well and that O'Malley "answered their questions."

It's a smart move on O'Malley's part, since much of the conversation around making college affordable centers on how to expand access to populations who have traditionally been left out — students of color among them.

While HBCUs have for decades provided a haven for black scholars, they've struggled in recent years to maintain enrollment as other universities have opened their doors, and to operate in the face of cuts to aid and revenue (HBCU students take out loans at higher rates than college students in general).

The schools and their students could use an infusion of hope, and O'Malley would like to provide it.

He'd also like them to believe his debt-free college plan is more feasible long-term than Sanders' free college proposal, which O'Malley has panned as merely a tuition voucher. In a Democratic field of candidates who have all called for a higher-education overhaul, the more support O'Malley can garner early on, the better his chances of staying in the race. Reaching out to often-overlooked HBCUs is a smart place to start.

This article is part of our Next America: Higher Education project, which is supported by grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Lumina Foundation.

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