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Expedition Instructor Travel Reimbursement

The NIA supports a long-term goal of reimbursing 100% of average travel costs for all Expedition instructors. The goal of reimbursing average costs, rather than all costs, is to maintain faculty members’ flexibility in travel planning, reduce administrative costs, and motivate faculty members to purchase more affordable tickets and request work closer to home. As with other planks of the NIA platform, our goals and recommendations are ambitious and far-reaching, based on ideals of equity, efficiency, and on excellence, rather than on incremental changes within the existing structure. They will require long-term, strategic thinking and goal-setting.

We recommend the following system to reach this goal: Over the years before the 100% goal is reached, NOLS builds a long-term database of faculty members’ total travel costs, using the existing TEJ system or a more efficient one, in order to discover the average real cost of travel to each NOLS location from each continent or part of the world. These average point-to-point costs can then be the basis for 100% reimbursement. For example, if the average total cost from North America to Patagonia is $1500, and Instructor A chooses to live in a remote rural area requiring multiple connecting flights, or waits until the last minute to purchase their ticket, and spends $2000, they would still receive only $1500. If Instructor B lives in Miami and finds a ticket for only $1000, they would receive $1000.

With a goal of reimbursing 100% of average costs, rather than actual costs, faculty would be encouraged to find reasonably priced travel options. Those finding cheaper travel options would receive 100% of their actual costs, and those receiving less than 100% of their costs could be expected to understand why this is the case (living in a remote location, careless ticket shopping, etc.).  

In addition, we recommend paying faculty members half their daily wage for all travel days, providing a per diem rate for food, and providing a per diem hotel rate for all overnight layovers.  

We also recommend creating an electronic system through which TEJs and receipts are processed for reimbursements. This system would increase the speed of reimbursements. Scanned receipts should be accepted, using a third party app such as Expensify or another program written to highlight inadvertent double-submissions, and reimbursements should be paid in all cases on the pay date immediately following their submission. This also might simplify the data collection needs of setting the average costs between locations.

Finally, a program to offer travel advances (tied to the ability to garnish future wages or bill faculty who drop or change contracts), should be widely advertised, easily accessible with little paperwork and no stigma, and made available to all faculty who may not have the capital or cash flow to purchase expensive travel months before earning the income associated with that trip. This is a diversity and inclusion issue, and could be immediately implemented at very little or no expense.

The advantages of such a system would include:

  • Decreasing frustration. Faculty consistently cite low travel compensation and a slow and inconsistent reimbursement process as a major cause of frustration and discontent. Removing this frustration will support the school by making faculty feel supported in traveling around the world and spending weeks or months away from home. Even if actual pay-scales stay low for some time, faculty will see that one major financial burden has been removed. 
  • Simplifying compensation. NOLS faculty members’ real income is quite unpredictable due to a number of factors, including the uncertainty of receiving work and the likelihood of travel costs eating up a substantial percentage of their pay. Reducing one level of this uncertainty would allow faculty members to budget more effectively, and would simplify ongoing changes to faculty compensation and benefits, as there would be one less competing priority.
  • Equity with Wilderness Medicine faculty, Custom Education faculty, and salaried in-town staff. It is a measure of NOLS’ professionalism and financial achievements that it is able to fully compensate travel for Wilderness Medicine faculty and for faculty working shorter Custom Education courses, and that it is able to send administrative staff around the world to support the work of Expedition instructors. Unfortunately, but very understandably, this causes a feeling of resentment amongst those NOLS employees whose travel is not fully compensated. This resentment lingers even among those who understand that the budgeting system for Wilderness Medicine and administrative staff travel is quite different from that for Expedition staff. Treating all Faculty and Staff equally in regards to travel would go a long way towards inclusion, and would avoid Expedition instructors feeling that they are less valued than others at NOLS.   
  • Supporting the real costs of the school’s mission. Living with low income, underemployment, and long periods away from family and friends are some of the ways that NOLS Expedition faculty support NOLS’ mission. While we do this willingly and with the understanding that we gain more than we lose in non-quantifiable terms, assuming most of the cost of travel would allow NOLS to take on one quantifiable item in the real cost of accomplishing its mission.  

We realize that these goals are ambitious and far-reaching, and we do not expect these kinds of changes overnight. However, we believe that specific and attainable goals are desirable. For reasons of equity, for the retention of excellent faculty, and as a way to signal to faculty that their work is valued, the NIA offers this goal for NOLS to pursue.

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