You can obtain professional-quality Web work at low cost by working with college students.

Students have acquired many of the design or programming skills they'll use when they eventually graduate, but they often will work for less money in order to build their portfolios. If you're building a new business, working with students can be a way to audition potential hires or at least get some fresh perspective from some up-and-comers in the Web design world.

To work successfully with college students, you need to know how to find talented students, what to expect, and when it's better to hire a full-time professional.

Explore Schools, Sites

Find student contractors by contacting college or university computer science departments, career centers, or co-op offices. Graphic design and journalism departments train students in multimedia and can also be good places to look for designers and writers.

Work-study programs aim to place students first in campus jobs or at nonprofits, but student employment offices often maintain physical or Web-based bulletin boards where potential employers can place ads that reach students. Some schools keep online databases of student resumes.

Other ways to find student contractors include advertising in the school newspaper, asking friends for recommendations, or browsing university Web sites. Students design home pages for classes or departments and typically include their e-mail addresses on those sites. If you see a site you like, you might be able to contact the designer. In addition, many students keep portfolios online you can browse for potential candidates.

Work Quirks

Make sure you understand relevant school policies when hiring students. Some schools will not allow students to work in for-profit activities on university-owned computers. If this is the case, make sure that the student has access to a good computer at work or at home. It might be better to provide the computer so the student can work in your office, where you can monitor progress and provide immediate feedback.

Although students' rates will be lower than those of established contractors, expect to pay a competitive rate and perhaps quite a bit for skills in high demand. A junior Perl programmer might charge $35 (U.S.) per hour rather than $70, but it can add up quickly. Offering a good wage ensures that students will make the work a priority and justifies your expectation of professional-quality work.

Scheduling is difficult with college students. Be prepared to work around their class schedules, projects, and exams. Typically, students leave town during breaks. If you must have someone on-site or available at all times, you might need a professional.

Student Leaves, Code Stays

Students might move out of state after graduation or take full-time jobs. For this reason, documentation is important. Make sure you know where files are, what they are called, and that you have records of any passwords. This will let someone else to take over.

With many types of coding, such as Perl and JavaScript, it's important for the student programmer to insert comments in the code itself so another programmer can see immediately what each section does and how to work on it.

Make documentation part of the assignment and follow up regularly to make sure you understand the information provided.

Keep in mind that administrative details such as billing and contracts might be entirely new to students. Take the initiative in drafting a contract and arranging a schedule for your student employee to submit invoices.

When to Go Pro

Sometimes there's no substitute for experience. "Many are the times when a student I have employed developed a design concept that had little to do with the client, their market or their product and services, but looked very cool," said Steve Steele, president of Acipa Media.

An experienced designer, Steele knows how to create a design that will lead visitors on a certain path through the site and result in aesthetic choices that can affect sales. Steele suggests a more experienced contractor might be better able to meet clients' goals. If you need help translating a complex business model to the Web, a pro with a proven track record might be best.

Best of Both Worlds

One more option: Work with both full-time pros and students. With professional contractors, be careful not to make decisions they're used to making themselves. Many Web consultants prefer to choose their interns and collaborators. Combining professional and student efforts can work if you hire the two parties to work on distinct parts of the project; for instance, a professional designer and a student programmer.

Nevertheless, be sure to explain the situation upfront to all parties involved and have them meet to make sure they can work together.

So is a student contractor your best solution? This depends on many factors, including the scope and type of project. But if you anticipate the special circumstances, it can work out well for everyone.

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