Ways to fund student travel, ranked

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You are sending students to a conference. What’s the best way to pay for it?

1. Travel Award. Let’s say you have money to fund students to travel for a conference, from a training grant or institutional funds. How about giving it to them in the form of a travel award? You can even call it a scholarship. This is just a check that’s cut to the student, and they can spend it on the travel. You can require as much documentation as you wish up front, but there’s no massive paperwork associated with filing a university travel request. (And folks just starting out get a lil’ line on their fledgling CV.) When I was in grad school, every year you could apply for a “travel award” for a conference. Which was easy money. And without hassle. (Note: It’s worth reconsidering if somehow this ends up getting to the financial aid office.)

2. Stipend. The only thing different between a “scholarship” and a “stipend” is the name. (Unless your institution has arcane policies with respect to financial aid that make this a real distinction.)

3. Travel Advance. From the student perspective, travel advances should be just fine. Students get the don’t have to up front the cash out of their own pockets (if they have it). The drawback with this approach is that (if your university is typical) you have to do accounting of the expenses (airfare, hotel, meals and/or per diem) in a reconciliation upon return. This takes a lot of time from the student, the PI, and/or admin assistant. But they, it’s a lot better than the alternative:

4. Reimbursement. The reimbursement has all of the paperwork drawbacks of the travel advance, but is even worse because the students don’t get they money before they travel. Paying students for travel after they come back from the trip is a serious problem. The culture of reimbursement in academia is a real barrier that keeps out people who don’t have spare cash in the bank. A lot of folks think that reimbursement isn’t a huge problem. These folks apparently haven’t been talking directly to students. And haven’t noticed when students who are given travel funds don’t use them, because they don’t have the money to spend up front. Or those who have to pay huge fees on their credit cards. (Note, if this somehow is the option you’re stuck with, please consider the possibility that you, as the PI, might have the financial buffer to handle expenses and reimbursement on your own, protecting your students from the outlay. It might not be easy for us, but it’s probably easier for us than our students. Also, if you wield your status around by saying that you have a huge amount of money waiting to be reimbursed to you personally, they’ll probably get on this faster than if it’s a smaller amount for a single student.)

A brief pause here: Let’s ask, why would you do a travel advance or reimbursement, when you could do a travel award or a stipend? I think there are two common possibilities. One is that there are institutional policies limiting preventing the travel award because there is a lack of faith in the people administering the funds, to be sure that the students use the funds as designated. Second is that the it’s possible that external funds spent on travel this way might be subject to indirect cost recovery, whereas awards and stipends are not. So it could be the institution looking to milk grants for every dollar. Even though the overhead on the travel expenses might not even cover the administrative time spent on accounting for all of the travel reconciliation. Pound wise, dollar foolish. Now, let’s get back to the list, for the Very Unfortunate Options:

5. The PI’s pocket. I suppose we can just pay for it.

6. The student’s pocket. I suppose they can just pay for it. (As a student, I often funded my own travel to conferences, whatever was beyond the small travel support from the university. My work was independent of the lab I was in. I thought this was normal. Maybe it is normal, but it’s not healthy.)

7. Wages. I’ve known a couple folks who have wanted to pay for student travel but didn’t have the mechanism in their funding to pay for airfare, hotel, and registration. So instead “hired” the student to travel and instructed them to use the funds from their “wages” to pay for travel expenses. This is illegal. Presenting at a conference or conducting fieldwork (or other forms of work travel) definitely can merit an hourly wage, but using wages as a way to compensate a person for spending money on travel expenses is, I think, fraud, and you’re making the student complicit in the crime. And it’s also wrong in that this person will have to pay taxes on money they never earned.

I suggest a one best practice: The institution pays in advance for as many things as possible: airfare, accommodation and registration. That way, if you have to do the reimbursement or advance, it’s less money that the students need to worry about.

Do you think your institution handles travel as efficiently and as painlessly as possible for students? If not, what’s the impediment? University guidelines, administrative fiat, personal gumption?

4 thoughts on “Ways to fund student travel, ranked

  1. I know of some (private) institutions where PIs have successfully lobbied for students to be given p-cards that they can use for conference travel and not have to pay up front. At my institution – large, public, Miswestern – this is not done. There isn’t much money for travel awards (you can receive a $500 award once) & many conference travel awards don’t cover enough expenses for students strapped for resources to attend. As I talk to more students in other departments and labs, I have figured out that students are expected to: 1) pay out of pocket and then be reimbursed, or; 2) to attend conferences for lab-related work and pay out of pocket (period). As a PhD candidate, I am fortunate to have an adviser who pays for travel to all conferences. I am reimbursed and am privileged to be able to do so. For my friends who are first-gen, international, and/or from low SES backgrounds (some of whom are expected to help their families out with their stipends), this is awful. The most I can do now is offer a spot in my hotel room to friends with less or no funding and cover a meal here or there. As a future faculty member, I will be lobbying to get p-cards for my students (& if not would probably just pay for their expenses up front out of pocket).

    • I am a faculty member at a public institution and graduate students can have p-cards – it’s great! Our department admin staff also have a travel card that can be used for purchasing plane tickets or other expenses when the traveler doesn’t have a p-card of their own.

      I went to an Ivy League school for grad school and they had much less progressive policies. It was like they expected that everyone was wealthy and could just wait months to get reimbursed for conferences or field work. They did do travel advances though, and they paid us relatively well so that helps.

  2. I’m struggling with this right now. We got an award to bring students (age 16-23; largely from rural, low income communities) to a conference, but the granting institution is insisting the students pay upfront, submit receipts after the conference, then get reimbursed. It’s bs, especially since the organization in question talks big on diversity and equity.

    Just a rant, but this is such a pervasive problem.

  3. This is a great post. At my current institution, they will pay for airfare & registration directly, in advance, but there is no mechanism to get things like hotel / rental car / per diem / local transport covered in advance. At my former institution, where I had my own corporate credit card for purchasing, I would always pay directly for airfare / registration for students, and I found out that I could get travel advances issued to students for meals etc. ahead of time. Hotel was trickier since most hotels require the billing card to be presented on registration – I was able to get around this for student travel to conferences I wasn’t personally attending by calling the hotel directly, ahead of time, and having them send me a billing authorization form to keep on file with my credit card info & signature to charge the student rooms to. And I also did have situations where I just paid for student travel out of my own pocket and put it in with my personal reimbursement, or shared a room w/ a student, or took students out for meals & paid for them w/ my personal funds.

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