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Can't afford an architect or gourmet meal? Hire a student

Kitchen Setup Taste 5.JPG

Students work under the close supervision of instructors at the Cook Street culinary school in Denver, CO, to prepare a gourmet meal to be served with five different kinds of wine. All for just $49 including the tip and taxes. (Courtsey of Cook Street Culinary School)

Melanie Hunt wanted someone special to decorate the nursery before her daughter, Ava, arrived. The 28-year-old homemaker from San Diego had checked shelter magazines for possible designs, and decided she wanted a professional to oversee the job. Seasoned designers were charging $100 or more an hour, however, and that was well beyond Hunt’s means. So she did the next best thing: Hunt hired an interior design student for a fraction of the price.

Three weeks later, the soft blue, pink and yellow adorning the newborn's room looked straight out of Elle Decor. The look was just what Hunt had wanted.

“She was just great. Just fabulous,” Hunt said. “I just loved the wholeheartedness of her approach and the vigor with which she worked on the project. What’s more, I only had to pay her $15 an hour.”

The cost of hiring a landscaper, getting a stylish haircut or ordering a gourmet meal need not be exorbitant. Many Americans are discovering that they can get top-notch services free or at big discounts by hiring students who are learning from the best in the field.

“It is one of the most effective ways to get the best value for your money,” said Rohini Machchral, 30, a sales executive who lives in Broomfield, Colo. “I sometimes feel students do a much better job at cutting hair than professionals because they want to prove themselves and so are much more creative and inspired.”

Machchral regularly visits the Longmont Hair Academy near her home to get snazzy haircuts. “I get my hair cut for as little as $8,” she said. “If I go to a regular salon for the same, it would cost anywhere between $30 to 50.”

The downside, however, is that it sometimes takes her as long as two hours to have her hair cut since apprentices work under the supervision of instructors who take their time in giving their instructions, Machchral said.

But Barry Russinof, 65, doesn’t mind spending extra moments idling about with a glass of fine red wine in his hand as he watches master chefs instruct their proteges on how to prepare deluxe meals.

Russinof is a regular at the Cook Street Culinary School in Denver. The school organizes an affordable monthly event called Taste 5, where members of the public can enjoy a savory five-course meal with five glasses of different wines. The price? Just $49, with tax and tip included.

“The deal is terrific. And it is embarrassingly cheap,” said Russinof, a car salesman.

Needless to say, Taste 5 is popular.

“We typically sell out one or two months in advance,” said Alan Hill, vice president and director of admissions at the cooking school. “If one goes to a regular restaurant, such a meal would cost anywhere from $150 and upward per pair.”

Student services at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan are also in demand. The school maintains a Web site listing jobs related to any of the 18 disciplines offered by FIT, including photography, illustration and fashion, jewelry and accessory design.

The primary motivation behind hiring students might be the cost, but Jennifer Miller, a career counselor at FIT, says the work also gives the students professional training. They get paid anywhere from $25 to $50 an hour depending on their experience.

“Compared to other places, our students are known to have a better foundation and understanding of the realities of fashion,” she said. “Some people come to us because they are looking for less expensive options. Others come because of the specialized attention they get.”

Many people also enlist students from dental schools, like the one at Columbia University, which maintains a teaching clinic that offers specialized dental care to patients for a nominal fee. For instance, the fee for registration and a first visit to the clinic, which includes an oral health screening and all necessary radiographs, is $75, compared with several hundred dollars at private dental offices.

Emma Cox, 38, is another fan of student work. Cox, a jewelry designer from Chicago, likes the youthful energy that students invest in beauty treatments.

“There is something about the earnestness with which students work that is so endearing,” said Cox, who regularly visits local salons on “Student Nights.” She recently got a pedicure and manicure for half the normal $50 rate.

Sometimes, things can go awry. The last haircut Cox got was given by a jittery trainee. “She just took so long and was very nervous,” Cox said.

But Cox plans to return. “I would go back to get a $10 hair cut from a smiling student any day if that means not having to spend much more on getting a hair cut from a sour-faced stylist at an upscale salon.”

E-mail: ss3052@columbia.edu