The outrageous costs of conferences

Academics don’t attend conferences just for fun. Conference attendance is mandatory for tenure-track academics to keep their jobs, to get tenure, to get promotions, to be marketable, to be current, and to be in touch with happenings in the field.

But the budgets in higher education are gasping for breath. If you happen to work at a small, private institution with limited travel funds, for example, your options for professional development are further limited. In the large expanse which is the United States of America, travel costs are high whether you travel by air, train, or car (and who has the time to travel by bus?) You certainly can’t save on hotel accommodations often because you don’t have good friends to stay with in every city (not to mention the fact that you don’t have time while conferencing to be commuting; even staying at hotels that are not the conference hotel compromises the professional networking you can accomplish).

Then there are meals, of course: if you are a hardy person, you might survive on energy bars and soda, but if you need, you know, actual food to survive, you’ll have to spend some cash. Especially if you want to hobnob with colleagues at restaurants.

Then there is academic organization membership, baggage fees, airport parking, and last minute business cards. And what’s the point of going if you don’t have a sharp suit to wear? Oh, and by the way, have you tried attending a conference wearing uncomfortable shoes? … The list goes on.

Right now, my conference attendance is at an all time low. This must change, but what’s to be done? You can’t squeeze blood from a stone, and you can’t find extra cash in the pocket of a junior academic. I thought it was hard as a student (and it was), but I find that it continues to be so – except now I don’t have a choice to skip a conference. With every conference I fail to show up, I become more and more invisible in my professional networks. But I have a family, and I am trying – in my 40s – to become a first-time homebuyer. I am also making progress on a dizzying array of payment plans for my recent cancer treatment. I have not enrolled my daughter in music lessons or Kumon or soccer as has almost everyone else because I don’t have the money. So the costs of conferencing are painful.

The folks who can comfortably attend conferences are usually the ones who don’t necessarily need to. The ones who desperately need to – grad students, jobseekers, adjuncts, and other junior academics – struggle to get by even without attending those 2-3 conferences a year, which cost roughly $1000 each. I don’t know about you, reader, but I don’t recall ever having a spare $1000 lying around on the kitchen table. Every penny that flows into my bank account is well, accounted for.

While academics may be unable to do much about travel costs and lodgings, perhaps we can have conferences that are less showy and expensive. We can do without the fanfare and the banquets.

And we can start becoming a little more reasonable about conference registration and membership costs.

For my income bracket, the American Anthropological Association charges $200 for membership, not counting section memberships (which are also essential, because how could you not have a departmental home within your organization?) The Middle East Studies Association charges a little less, $130 for my income. The Comparative and International Education Society charges $70, which is fairly low. The sliding scale approach to membership is helpful, but for a grad student who makes $1000 a month (or not), even $65 is a lot of money. I would like to mention the American Educational Research Association here, which charges $150 for regular membership, but has a Hardship Policy:

Mindful of the challenging economic times, AERA offers a hardship policy whereby members confronted with financial hardship due to unemployment or transitional difficulties may request a waiver of dues for one year. 

Other academic organizations need to take note of this policy and, “mindful of the challenging economic times,” should follow suit.

And then of course there is conference registration. In most cases, the American Anthropological Association requires attendees to register (and pay membership) well before they get notification of proposal acceptance. This means that you could sink hundreds of dollars into a conference that you then don’t attend because you really need a conference where you are presenting, not just attending (most institutions don’t really reimburse/support your conference travel unless you’re presenting). 

The Comparative and International Education Society charges members $275 for registration. For students attending the International Congress on Qualitative Inquiry, on-site registration costs $140. (The conference does not list the cost of registration for faculty attendees who are not presenters). If attendees decline to receive a program booklet, registration is essentially the price of walking up and down the conference hotel, trying to make eye contact with their academic idols, and trying to strike up conversations with other hopefuls who won’t want to waste their time networking with non-celebrities.

The returns on conference attendance are like the returns on gambling: shrouded in uncertainty.

Imagine a tenure-track assistant professor – let’s not even imagine a grad student – making $50K, raising 2-3 children, paying rent/mortgage in a large city, and commuting to work in a used car. Are you aware that, even with excellent credit, there is no spare cash in this picture? Imagine, now, if the assistant professor gets sick or injured, or her car breaks down, or her parent is hospitalized in another city. Do you really think that about $100-200 for membership for a single organization, $200-400 for a single conference registration, and the costs of air travel and hotel accommodations (multiplied by about 3 conferences) is something she can – or should – come up with? Especially given the uncertainty of the investment?

Here are a couple of suggestions – neither novel nor innovative – to start us off.

First: the local and regional conferences need to be revitalized. Part of what ails the local/regional conference is the absence of the academic celebrities. So I suggest that the academic celebrities of all hue transcend their egos and make a habit of attending the local and the regional conference. Attendees of these conferences should receive “extra credit,” as if they were engaged in professional service. Times have changed. Not everyone can afford to be in San Francisco, Montreal, or Washington, DC for the national conference. You know we’d all like to be there, but since we can’t, let’s make professional networking and the life of the mind possible for the vast numbers of academics who can’t.

Second: the virtual conference needs to get off the ground. We’ve been talking about them for a while, but they haven’t quite made it. So let’s get this party started. And in the ARPT files, these virtual conferences need to start counting for much more.

Because something has to change. The world is changing around us, and we can’t afford to pretend. We are thinkers and social critics, reformers and investigators – how can we, of all people, act like our profession is rolling in money?

What are your suggestions to address the situation?