Maryland gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous (D). (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

Maryland gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous is calling for Maryland to join the state of New York in providing public higher education for a large segment of the population free of charge.

“College is as important in the 21st century as high school was in the 20th century,” the former NAACP president and tech investor told a group of students and progressive activists gathered Tuesday night at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. He said he would help pay for the plan by reducing the number of people in prison and cutting corrections costs.

Jealous spoke after the students participated in a virtual town hall hosted by 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who was touting his plan for tuition-free college nationwide.

The Vermont senator endorsed Jealous's gubernatorial bid in July .

Jealous has not estimated how much a Maryland tuition-free state program would cost, how many students would benefit or what type of income-eligibility requirements would be required. “We’re still looking at those numbers,” he said.

Still, the proposal is likely to help set the tone on college-affordability issues as the 2018 Democratic gubernatorial primary campaign gets underway.

Two other Democratic hopefuls — state Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (Montgomery) and Jim Shea, an attorney who chaired the University System of Maryland Board of Regents — said the tuition-free idea is not new, and noted that they each have played a significant role in keeping tuition rates down in the state. Madaleno criticized Jealous for offering a plan without specifics.

“I appreciate that Bernie and Ben are getting on a bandwagon already up and running in Maryland,” he said. “I’m eager to hear if Ben has plans to support his ideas.”

Shea said he is committed to making community college free of charge and would consider debt-free options at the state’s public universities.

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, who also is running, did not respond to the question of whether he supports tuition-free college. But he noted that his county initiated a program, called Early College High School, where students can receive both a high school diploma and an associate degree within four years.

“That’s the kind of real results we need statewide,” Kamenetz said.

Tech entrepreneur Alec Ross, another candidate in the crowded Democratic field, said he is not calling for free tuition. Part of his higher-education plan, he said, is focused on building opportunity in the job market.

“I’m all for making college more affordable,” Ross said. “But we can’t forget the legitimate needs of Marylanders who choose not to go to college and we need to make significant investments in world-class technical education and apprenticeships.”

Krishanti Vignarajah, a former policy director for Michelle Obama who also is running in the June primary, did not return a call for comment. Prince George's County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, who led the field in a recent poll that matched candidates up against incumbent Gov. Larry Hogan (R), declined to comment on whether he supported tuition-free public higher education.

In 2015, then-President Barack Obama proposed tuition-free community college, saying that attaining at least that level of education had become as essential in today's world as finishing high school was a generation ago. An estimated 9 million students across the country would have benefited.

Since then, a couple of cities and states, including San Francisco and Oregon, have begun offering community college for free.

Last year, Sanders expanded on the idea, calling for not just free community college but free public four-year universities. He said he would pay for that proposal by imposing a tax on Wall Street.

The senator introduced the College for All Act in April. On Tuesday night, he asked students gathered at hundreds of campuses across the country for the virtual town hall to write their representatives and senators to support the legislation.

“We can win this fight,” Sanders said. “But we need young people to stand up and fight back.”

New York became the first state in the nation to pass legislation to provide tuition-free college scholarships to students from families with incomes up to $125,000 a year. Such students will be able to attend all State University of New York and City University of New York colleges at no cost.

On Thursday, Jealous — whose platform also includes a $15-an-hour minimum wage and a single-payer health-care system — is scheduled to receive a coveted endorsement from the Service Employees International Union, which has 45,000 members in its Maryland/D.C. Council.

“We have elected people in the past and they’ve done little to nothing to help in passing sick days or a $15 minimum wage,” said Jaime Contreras, vice president of SEIU 32BJ. “Those are not the type of Democrats we want to elect to office anymore. We want the ones who have the mind-set to get things done for working people.”