Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley is seen at an event in New Castle, N.H., on June 13. The presidential candidate wants to help students graduate debt-free. His own family borrowed $339,200. (Cheryl Senter/AP)

Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley surrendered — just like many other parents.

When his daughters were choosing their colleges, he let them have their way. He didn’t want to crush their dreams, and he ended up with crushing debt.

Last week, O’Malley spelled out a proposal to help students graduate debt-free from public colleges and universities by increasing Pell Grants and automatically enrolling borrowers in income-based repayment plans. One key part of his plan calls for helping students and parents refinance their debt at lower interest rates.

O’Malley knows of what he speaks. In announcing his proposals, he revealed that his family has accumulated more than $339,200 in student loans, the bulk of which are parent PLUS loans. He and his wife borrowed to educate their daughters, Grace, 24, who attended Georgetown University and is a public school teacher in Baltimore, and Tara, 23, who attended the College of Charleston in South Carolina and is now an administrative assistant for the United Nations Foundation in the District. The couple still has two sons to get through college, William 17, and Jack, 12.

When O’Malley was governor of Maryland, he fought to have the state universities freeze tuition. Even with his vast political and legal experience, O’Malley couldn’t win a key argument with his daughters that state schools were a good bargain.

“I’m blessed with strong-willed women in my life,” he gently laughed during a phone interview while campaigning in New Hampshire. “I wanted them to go in-state. But I lost the vote.”

I can empathize with O’Malley’s dilemma. His father, a World War II veteran, graduated from Georgetown. His daughter pleaded to have the same opportunity, although his father went on the G.I. Bill. And once you allow the first child to go out-of-state, it’s hard to deny the second.

We can second-guess the wisdom of the O’Malleys’ decision, and I do. But now that they’ve made it, I hope the family — given their public platform — will use their experience as a cautionary tale that, for most families, it’s not okay to cave to an 18-year-old whose dreams of a particular college will create decades of debt.

“I don’t want to hold us up as a metaphor of every family,” O’Malley said. “We are very lucky in that both of us are working and hopefully will continue to work. I think one thing that is true for all of us as Americans, it’s not good for our country or our economy to saddle [families] with the sort of debt that we have. A lot of families don’t have the ability to go into that sort of debt.”

Total outstanding student loan debt has reached $1.3 trillion. When we talk about the student-loan crisis, we mostly focus on the amount of debt being accumulated by students. But there’s not enough emphasis on the amount parents are borrowing. PLUS loans for parents have reached almost $69 billion, according to Department of Education data.

“Better we have the debt than [our children] have the debt,” O’Malley said.

That’s a sentiment many parents hold. And even as public servants, the O’Malleys (Katie O’Malley is a Baltimore District Court judge) may be able to manage the debt load. But are other families really thinking through whether they can?

As Consumers Union points out, PLUS loans, which are also available for graduate students, have much higher borrowing limits. The organization, in a letter urging the Department of Education not to lower borrowing standards for PLUS loans, made some important observations.

“Loans to graduate students are made on the promise that they will see an increase in salary from their educational attainment that enables them to repay the loans they borrowed,” wrote Suzanne Martindale, a staff attorney for Consumers Union. “Parents, on the other hand, do not see an increase in their incomes from their children’s education. . . . They have no guarantee that their children will help pay the loans back, or will even finish school. For these reasons, allowing parents to borrow many thousands of dollars in PLUS loans raises unique concerns.”

We’ve heard promises on the campaign trail this year about helping families afford college. And we do need some legislative intervention so that many people won’t be priced out of a college education.

But we also need to press upon parents and their children that dreams can come true without going to colleges that result in a heavy debt load.

As we wrapped up our conversation, I asked O’Malley an obvious question. What’s the plan for their sons?

“I hope to make a compelling argument with them to choose more affordable options for their parents,” he said. “I may put your column under their pillows.”

Hey, governor, I’m willing to do an in-person intervention.

Write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or singletarym@washpost.com. Questions may be used in a future column, with the writer’s name, unless otherwise requested. To read more, go to http://wapo.st/michelle-singletary.