USF graduate traveling funds ran dry

Graduate students hoping to be reimbursed for travel expenses this semester may be surprised to learn that grant money ran out in January.

Now, students hoping to receive future grants will experience a few policy changes.

Students who traveled to domestic and international conferences during the spring semester discovered in a January email that, despite paying a $7 flat fee to Activity and Service (A&S) fees, Conference Presentation Grant Program (CPGP) funds for the 2010-11 fiscal year were depleted by January, leaving them without promised assistance for travel expenses.

“Funds for the July 1, 2010 – June 30, 2011 year have been depleted. We are not accepting any more applications for this fiscal year. Sorry for any inconvenience,” reads a banner on the CPGP website.

Students hoping to use the CPGP, which was developed to cover travel expenses for students presenting or attaining professional development skills at conferences, this semester received little help from the program, which distributed all of its funds during the fall semester.

Assistant Vice President and Dean of Students Kevin Banks said the depletion could be due in part to an increase in grant requests, which are currently doled out on a first-come, first-serve basis. Next fiscal year, a certain amount of grants may be designated for each semester, he said.

“There was an unprecedented number of requests for travel funds,” Banks said. “In hindsight, we should have probably designated 60 percent (of total funds) to the fall semester and 40 (percent of total funds) to the spring semester.”

Quentin Miller, a fiscal and business assistant in the Office of Travel, said that funding for the CPGP increased by more than $37,000 since the 2009-10 fiscal year, while the amount allocated per travel grant award increased from $400 to $500. This year, the total amount allocated to the CPGP was $212,000, he said.

“The program is becoming more widely known,” Miller said. “They require students to submit their applications to (Student Government) before they apply to the department. Most of the time, it doesn’t cover the actual expenses the student has, but at least it’s a supplement to give some (money) back to them.”

Banks said that because A&S fees, which are the sole source of funding for the Office of Travel, will be the same next fiscal year the amount of money allocated to the CPGP will “probably stay the same.” The A&S Fee Recommendation Committee has budgeted $212,000 for the CPGP next fiscal year, he said, the same amount the program received this year.

Banks said he’s working with Associate Dean for the Graduate School Richard Pollenz to ensure the program doesn’t encounter the same problem next year. One aspect of those efforts will be to examine more closely the “scholar-worthiness” of each grant proposal, he said.

“It’s always been a given that students apply and they get (conference grants),” Banks said. “These days are few and far between. In light of the economy, proposals will have to be scrutinized closer. It’s great we can provide (funds for students), but resources are getting tighter, and we’ve got to ratchet up our standards.”

In the meantime, Banks said students should turn to the Graduate School to see what resources are available to fund their immediate travel needs.

Pollenz said the Graduate School allocates $37 million to student support programs, yet has taken $11,000 out of its operating expenditures this semester to accommodate the unexpected need for travel assistance.

“We try to have all of our money be in defined, larger categories,” he said. “What we’re going to do is look at the (travel funding) in the future.”

Banks said students should also explore alternative forms of professional development, such as online conference webinars.

“(USF as a whole) is having to scrutinize how we spend resources to achieve student success,” he said. “We need to see how to best spread our resources.”