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The truth about cheap tuition: caveat emptor

Your prices are higher than the prices at my local dive shop—why should I take your class?

My prices are higher because I give you more. I include everything you need to get certified—manuals, log books, even gear rental if you need it. I keep my class size limited so every student gets the attention they deserve. Plus, I'm a knowledgeable and approachable instructor, with more than 20 years of diving and non-diving teaching experience and consistent positive feedback from my students. I love diving and I love teaching, and that shows in my classes.

Dive course pricing is a difficult subject to discuss without sounding negative. But when my students realize that the price they are paying is worthwhile, the obvious next questions are: Why do so many dive shops offer cheap tuition, and why do so many instructors accept such low pay? Both are excellent questions that deserve well-thought answers; the following is my attempt.

Don't be fooled by cheap tuition

Places that offer cheap tuition will usually get your money in other ways, by hoping you'll feel too sheepish to cancel and walk away after you've signed up for a course. At most shops, manuals, videos, and log books will cost you extra, and they will require you to have your own mask, fins, and snorkel before you can take a class—which they will happily sell you for an extra $200 – $500.

The cheap tuition is simply a loss leader to get you into the store, where they can pressure you into spending hundreds of dollars on dive gear—because that's where they make their money.

Would you trust a high-school babysitter to teach you how to dive?

Meanwhile, the instructors who work for these low-tuition shops often receive only a small flat fee per student for teaching an open water class that takes at least 25 hours to teach. They are often required by the shop to run a class with as few as 2 students. Even if the dive shop runs the class with just 4 students (which often happens), this dive instructor is generally making the same hourly rate as the local babysitter! These instructors spent hundreds of hours and tens of thousands of dollars for their training and teaching materials, and they're earning the same rate as a high-school student who puts the kids to bed and spends most of her time watching TV. Yikes!

What to expect from a low-paid instructor

Why do some instructors tolerate such low pay? I've found they generally fall into one of the following categories:

  • They believe that such low pay is all they are worth. If they think their teaching skills are worth so little, what do you think you can expect from their classes?
  • They don't care about the pay because they don't care about their classes or their students. I've seen these types of instructors abandon their students on dive boats, rushing off the boat to get in 15 minutes of personal diving while their students struggle getting geared up, confused about what's going on.
  • They feel trapped by the dive shop: that if they want to teach diving, they have to accept the low pay offered by the shop. These instructors are often angry or cynical, and it reflects in their teaching. To validate to themselves that they are worth more, they often short-change their students by running huge classes (more students means more money) or by rushing their students (shorter classes means more money/hour).
  • They're martyrs for the dive shop. They accept the low pay, and often still do a good job of teaching their students. Every one of them eventually burns out or transforms into one of the other types above—see my next section.
  • They don't care about the pay because this is just a hobby for them. Beware—see my section further below for more info about these hobbyist instructors.

Martyr instructors burn out

Despite the obstacles, some instructors still do a great job for such little pay. Of course, they can't live on what they make teaching dive classes, so they require some other job that's their main source of income. And whether you get them on a good day or bad day all depends on how stressed out they are from their primary job. For example, I absolutely loved one of my instructors. He not only taught me dive skills, he got me excited about diving. I told a friend she absolutely had to take one of his classes, and when she finally did, she hated him as an instructor.

What happened? Well, he was stressed out from his primary job, and he was making so little as a dive instructor that it had become a burden. His teaching style became cynical. He began rushing his students, who felt like they weren't learning anything because everything was being thrown at them too quickly. He had transformed into an instructor who felt trapped by the dive shop, and he didn't like what he was becoming. Less than a year later he stopped teaching for good; he wanted to do a good job teaching, but it just didn't make financial sense for him to continue. He had been an awesome instructor, but he burned out. And the dive shop didn't care one bit—it had other instructors still willing to teach at the babysitter pay rates it continued to offer.

Beware of hobbyist instructors

Finally, some instructors do it as a hobby. They often have an official dive business set up by an accountant so they can write off all their dive gear on their tax returns—and they buy a lot of gear! Since they have a business, it may not immediately seem like they treat it as a hobby. But ask them a few questions and study their motivations, and it soon becomes obvious that this is not really a business for them—it's their hobby. (A dead giveaway is if their business name is cute or goofy.) They don't care what they're paid, and they're happy to let the dive shop take care of all the busy work in setting up classes, so they can focus on having fun with their hobby.

These hobbyist instructors can be fun to learn from because they very much enjoy what they are doing. But you need to remember that they are doing it for themselves, not for you. After all, you're not a customer to them, you're just someone they are sharing their hobby with. There's no incentive for these instructors to make sure that their students have an enjoyable experience because their students don't have the importance associated with being a real customer. If you as a student don't like the way the class is going, tough cookies—you can just leave; they'll share their hobby with someone else who's easier to deal with.

If you want the services of a professional, you should learn from a professional business

I'm a dive professional who intends to make a living from my business. That means that my customers are my most important asset, so I treat them as such. When my students have a great time, I benefit because their praise helps generate more students for me. If I do a poor job of teaching, I lose future students and that hurts my business.

So I want to do everything I can to ensure that my students get the most out of their courses. Part of that means being up front about costs, and not hiding the real costs from prospective students. And I don't sell dive gear, so I can't rely on pressuring you to buy some overpriced equipment to keep my business afloat. I simply can't survive as a business without keeping my customers happy.

That means that you can be assured you're getting the most out of my classes. The tuition I charge is well worth what you get from my classes. And to be blunt, if getting the most out of a dive class isn't important to you, if cheap prices and a certification card are the only things that matter, then you should try your luck with the cheap courses offered by many dive shops. Simply put, you get what you pay for. But I'd be happy to have you as an advanced student after you've had a horrible experience elsewhere.

Finally, I offer a 100% satisfaction guarantee. If you are not satisfied with any course you take from me, just let me know before I certify you and I will refund your tuition. How many other places are so confident in their teaching that they'll offer you that?

So what are you waiting for? Sign up for an 8th Element Diving class—you'll love it!

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