University bills getting tougher to handle

HARTNEY, Man. – Gerry and Margaret Whetter saw their two oldest sons through University without the burden of student loans. Their two youngest may not be as fortunate.

The Whetters, who farm near this southwestern Manitoba community, have seen their farm income fall due to poor commodity prices.

Now insult has been added to injury as record rainfall forced them to seed so late that they have the prospect of harvesting frozen grain.

Like many farm families in southeastern Manitoba, what happens in the weather and the marketplace has begun to affect the family.

Ian Whetter is in his third year at the University of Manitoba. His plans for summer income were cut short as work with local agricultural suppliers and applicators dropped off.

“I got two weeks off in mid May because it was too wet for farmers to do any seeding,” said Ian.

He is helping his parents on their farm this summer and in turn they hope to help him with his school expenses this fall. To play it safe, his dad has suggested he make his first-ever application for a Canada/Manitoba student loan.

“If we have an open fall and things turn around a bit we’ll be able to help him through the winter. Until the crop is in the bin though, there is no telling what will happen. In that past summer, earnings with a little help from Mom and Dad were enough,” said Gerry.

Poor commodity prices and weather extremes have left many farm families with less potential income than many producers have ever seen.

So the province has relaxed its student loan eligibility rules.

As well, Brandon University has lowered student residence fees by up to $1,000 for students who can demonstrate need.

University president Dennis Anderson also lobbied the province to improve the terms for student loans.

“We draw a significant portion of our students from rural Manitoba and need to show our support and concern for students and families affected by this natural disaster,” said Anderson.

Students in Manitoba can apply for a $40 per week study grant that would top up the $275 Canada student loan program maximum.

In addition to the $40 boost, there is a waiver of the summer income requirement to qualify for assistance. Parental income, a factor for students under 21 years of age, may be estimated for this year rather than based on last year’s income tax statements. The province is also allowing for transportation or vehicle-use costs on a case-by-case basis.

“I’m glad somebody recognizes that we are facing some pretty hard times these days. Some people might think this is just handy to react with an election coming up, but I think this is a legitimate effort on the part of the government,” said Gerry.

Ian said it has been good to get through school to this point without loans but added that if it is necessary to borrow to stay in school, he will.

The third year ecology student plans to write pre-medicine application exams this year.

“If I go into medicine it won’t matter that much because then I’ll have a fortune in loans anyway,” said Ian.

His father still feels it would be preferable to see Ian and his younger brother, several years away from university, through the first four years of post-secondary education without loans.

“I’m glad there are student loans in place but at the same time once you’re through, you still need to find a job and pay them off. This is a tough market for young people,” he said.

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