NDP Leader Andrea Horwath promised a four-year freeze of college and university tuition fees, which she said have spiralled out of control over eight years of Liberal leadership.
Speaking at Toronto's Ryerson University, Horwath told a small crowd of students her party would also scrap the interest on the provincial portion of student loans if her party is elected Oct. 6.
"In a global economy, our prosperity as a province will be measured by the quality of our education system and by how accessible that system is," she said.
"It doesn't help any of us to have new graduates buried under a mountain of debt."
The program -- the centrepiece of the party's long-awaited education platform -- would cost $950 million over four years, with the bulk of the money going to universities and colleges to make up for the lost revenue, the NDP said.
In focusing on tuition, the New Democrats are going head-to-head with the Liberals, who have campaigned heavily on the their education record and made tuition cuts for middle-class students a cornerstone of their platform.
"They may not be picking them off so much as neutralizing them," said Henry Jacek, professor of political science at McMaster University in Hamilton.
"If you don't counter what another party has done, you run the risk of losing your people over to that party," he added.
The NDP and the Premier Dalton McGuinty's Liberals have faced off over funding for post-secondary education during the last two provincial elections and continue to compete for the students' votes, he said.
Ontario students pay the highest undergraduate fees in the country, an average of $6,307 a year, according to Statistics Canada. The province also has the second highest graduate fees, about $6,917.
Horwath said her party's plan will do more for students than the Liberals' proposed credit, which would grant a 30 per cent reduction in university tuition fees for families earning less than $160,000 a year.
"Eventually, over a couple of years, that 30 per cent rebate is going to be useless because in fact, the tuition fees are going to continue to climb," she said.
McGuinty, who was campaigning in northern Ontario on Thursday, defended the plan, calling it "extraordinary" and "dramatic."
"It's a commitment not just to our families in helping them meet those costs to send the kids to college, university and apprenticeships, but it's a commitment to our shared economic future," he said in Thunder Bay.
John Milloy, minister of training, colleges and universities questioned the cost of the program.
By his calculations -- based on a growing student population and an annual five per cent tuition hike -- Milloy says the total tally is closer to $1.8 billion.
The NDP's numbers are based on an annual tuition increase of 2.5 per cent, the party said.
Bonnie Patterson, president and CEO of the Council of Ontario Universities, said she worries a tuition freeze could end up hurting students if the province doesn't offer sufficient funding to cover the school's expenses.
Most universities are raising tuition by five per cent each year, and anything less could lead to cuts in services, she warned.
Students called the post-secondary plan a good first step, but said they hope to eventually see the province roll back tuition fees rather than simply hold them steady.
Several student groups, including the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance and the Ontario branch of the Canadian Federation of Students, said they welcomed the party's move to lift some of the financial burden off students.
But some who watched the announcement complained the program would barely make a dent in the massive debt most graduates shoulder.
The NDP said the interest relief plan would allow students with $25,000 of debt to save about $60 a year. Graduates still paying off their loans would also be eligible for the savings.
"It's peanuts," said Jeffrey O'Hearn, a third-year finance student at Ryerson. "What is that compared to $25,000 of debt?"
Horwath also released a more modest plan for elementary and high school education, building on earlier pledges to crack down on course fees and fundraising, which she said threaten to create a two-tier education system.
She promised to ramp up enforcement of an existing ban on fees for courses required to graduate, citing a report that found more than two thirds of high schools charged fees in the last school year.
Schools would split an additional $20 million in funding to make up for the lost fees, she said.
She also announced a new grant system meant to replace fundraising in schools. The program would cost another $20 million a year, to be distributed to parent councils on a per capita basis, she said.
The councils would use the money to pay for clubs, teams, field trips and special events.
Former education minister Kathleen Wynne said she was alarmed to hear no mention of graduation rates, class sizes and test scores in the NDP's platform for elementary and high school education.
She also opposed a ban on fundraising, saying it would eliminate an important community-building activity for schools and parents.
The New Democrats were the last to release their education platform.
The Progressive Conservatives have vowed to pour an additional $2 billion into the education system over four years.
They also promise to create up to 60,000 post-secondary spaces and raise the threshold on financial support to make college and university more accessible to more middle class families.