College accounting students across the country are once again assisting low-income taxpayers—and getting some invaluable hands-on experience in the process – volunteering as certified tax preparers for Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, sponsored by the IRS.
According to the IRS, the VITA program offers "free tax help to people who generally make $52,000 or less, persons with disabilities, the elderly and limited English speaking taxpayers who need assistance in preparing their own tax returns. IRS-certified volunteers provide free basic income tax return preparation with electronic filing to qualified individuals."
VITA sites are located at community centers across the country, including many colleges and universities, like the Washburn University School of Law in Topeka, Kansas, and Penn State in University Park, Pennsylvania, where students undergo extensive training to serve as certified volunteer tax preparers.
"Participating in the VITA program helps students decide what type of work they choose in their profession. In addition to giving students the opportunity to sharpen professional skills, I hope it also encourages a 'give back' attitude so they will volunteer in their community after graduating," said Cathy Bowen, professor of consumer issues at Penn State and site coordinator of the University Park campus VITA program.
The Washburn VITA clinic is run by students from Washburn's Tax and Estate Planning Association, under the direction of Washburn University Law Professor Lori McMillan. The clinic, which is open every Saturday during tax season, has offered free tax help to approximately 175 low-income individuals and families this year.
McMillan said the rigorous training the program provides, coupled with the real-world experience of helping actual clients navigate the tax code, is an invaluable learning experience for students, many of whom hope to become CPAs.
"As a teacher, you can talk about deductions, the tax code, and how to interview clients, but it doesn't really hit home until the students can put those concepts to work in the real world," McMillan said. "Working as a VITA volunteer turns theoretical tax concepts into something concrete. It makes the theory come alive in practice, and students are much more invested because there is a person, a face, attached to the concept."
VITA volunteers also get to practice their soft skills and technical knowledge as they interview clients and glean information necessary to process their returns.
McMillan said the experience is also an eye-opener for many students who are coming face-to-face with poverty for the first time.
"Many students have never seen firsthand the struggles a low income person has to deal with on daily basis; someone with several W-2's and only making $15,000 a year," McMillan said. "They realize this person is working two or three jobs and supporting two children below the poverty level. They're quite shaken, but they also realize how important the returns, and their services, are to these people."
This year, more than 80 law and accounting students at Penn State's main campus underwent months of extensive training to become certified tax preparers through the VITA program. This is the eleventh year Penn State-University Park has hosted the VITA program. To date the volunteers have completed about 500 returns and by the end of the filing season will probably assist nearly 700 or more taxpayers.
In addition to completing the process-based training provided by the IRS, Penn State volunteer tax preparers attended in-person trainings on federal and state taxes and practiced completing returns to become familiar with the software provided by the IRS.
Penn State student Sarah Mackey, a master of accountancy student and VITA program supervisor, said her three years in the program have been "life-changing" for her. "The greatest aspect of volunteering as a VITA preparer is getting out there talking face-to-face with real people and helping them with their taxes," said Mackey.
Penn State volunteer Brandon Williams, an accounting major and accounting liaison for the VITA program, also learned how important "people skills" are in the real world of business – particularly when explaining the complexities of the tax code. "No one client is the same. Almost every client has a unique problem that takes a little research. If I am able to do someone's taxes but I cannot explain my work, then the client is left confused. It is important to understand how to make the client feel comfortable and explain everything that goes into doing their taxes," Williams said.
But the most rewarding part of their VITA experience, volunteers say, is using their skills to help those in need. It's a lesson, Alexandria Fisher an accounting major at Washburn, and prospective CPA, says she hopes to carry into the future.
"I have been in the same financial situation as these people and I am also trying to better my financial future, so I have a strong desire to help low-income families," Fisher said. "Often, the only people who seek tax assistance are the individuals who can afford it, but this type of help can be tailored to lower-income individuals, and it can help them achieve better financial footing. The VITA program has shown me CPAs can help people build better lives."
Accountants who want to help can find out how to become a volunteer.