North Carolina Sen. John Edwards proposed major education reforms to improve school and teacher quality and to make higher education more accessible and affordable, in a speech Thursday at the University of Maryland.

Edwards, a top contender for the Democratic nomination for president in 2004, said the heart of the American dream has changed dramatically, making it harder for students to achieve their best.

"Today we live in a vastly different world. You can't just work your way up the company ladder," he said with a deep Southern accent.

Students' futures depend largely on the quality of the schools they attend and the teachers they have, Edwards said.

To improve teacher quality, he said, the government must invest more in its teachers, even going as far as paying for the college education of students who promise to teach in disadvantaged urban and rural school districts or in fields needing the most teachers. Edwards also suggested mortgage tax credits for teachers willing to buy homes in those communities, plus pay raises and better mentoring programs.

The federal government spends about $3 billion a year on teacher quality and pay, but Edwards said that should be doubled.

"We don't do enough to reward teachers and we don't ask enough in return," he said. "Good teachers deserve to be honored, valued and rewarded."

Maryland has offered similar initiatives to recruit more teachers to the state, including offering low-interest home loans and scholarships for students who pledge to work in the state, said Assistant State Schools Superintendent Ron Peiffer.

Attracting younger, inexperienced teachers to disadvantaged areas, however, could cause problems, Peiffer said. "You might end up with your least experienced teachers dealing with your most needy students," Peiffer said.

Edwards also bemoaned the increasing enrollment of high schools, saying it has hurt education, making students feel like numbers with no personal identity.

"Bigger is not better," he said. "Kids perform better and stay in school longer in small schools."

Edwards also called for more post-secondary accessibility and affordability for students. He said the first year of tuition at community colleges and state colleges and universities should be free for students who work hard.

"Preparing young people for college won't matter if they can't afford to go," Edwards said. "All our children deserve the same chance to make the most of their gifts."

Edwards said he first went to Clemson University after high school, but had to leave because he couldn't afford it. He later attended both North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Colleges and universities should eliminate legacy admissions and binding early decisions to make admissions more fair, Edwards said.

"These investments are ambitious, but they're critical," he said.

After the speech, Edwards signed pictures and shook hands with eager Maryland students.

"He's my top choice for the presidential Democratic candidate," said Jaime O'Brien, a 20-year-old junior. "He'd be such a great candidate. He has everything Gore didn't."

Not all students were convinced of his agenda, however.

"He advocates public choice [of high schools] but then he says schools are too big," said Jason LaFond, a 21-year-old junior. "Everybody is going to choose the good schools."

Edwards has been a North Carolina senator since 1999 and serves on five Senate committees, including the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committees.

Thursday's education speech was the last of three speeches by Edwards, who requested the time from the university. He has previously spoken on the economy and America's role in the world.

"He gave the students a lot to think about," said university spokesman Dave Ottalini. "We were thrilled to have him here."