Accounting students earn course credit through VITA participation

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Taxpayers from low income families, military families, and the elderly throughout the country are getting help with their federal and state income tax returns at the Internal Revenue Service's (IRS) Voluntary Income Tax Assistance (VITA) sites, many of which are staffed by student volunteers from accounting and business programs at nearby colleges and universities. For some accounting student volunteers, participation in VITA is considered a part of their academic learning as well as a unique service learning opportunity.

Students in the accounting departments at Fairfield University in Fairfield, CT and Sacred Heart University in Bridgeport, CT are earning course credit for their VITA participation. Volunteers from both schools must make a significant commitment of time and must be VITA certified at the advanced level, but the two professors who have incorporated the VITA experience into their courses, partnering with the IRS and community organizations, view the volunteer learning experience with unique emphases and from individual perspectives.

Fairfield accounting student volunteers participate in the VITA program as part of the Federal Tax I and Federal Tax II sequence of courses. Students who decide to participate in the program are given the IRS VITA course preparation materials in the fall semester. Most work in study groups before taking the exam for advanced certification in the computer lab on their own time.

During the second semester, students volunteer four hours per week, as part of the Federal Tax II course, at one of eleven VITA sites sponsored by the Greater Bridgeport Family Economic Security Coalition, where they are supervised by site coordinators. Most of their clients are from low income families. From February 1st to April 15th, they attend class only one day a week, returning to a regular class schedule at the end of the tax season.

Professor Kathleen M. Weiden, PhD., CPA, incorporated VITA participation as the service-learning component of Federal Tax II for the first time in 2007 to provide her students with real world learning and the community with a crucial service. Weiden designed the course, she says, "to synthesize the VITA experience with technical tax content on property tax transactions and readings on citizenship and on welfare tax policy." During the tax season participating students write essays and reflections on their readings in the context of their real world experience in the VITA program.

The 20 students in the Fairfield program are asked to think about a central question, Dr. Weiden told AccountingWEB, which is, "Now you have a specific skill. What will you do with it for the community?" Beyond that, she says their experience demonstrates that "community service that is pointedly related to a specific skill engenders a great sense of connection."

For Christopher Baldi, an accounting major at nearby Sacred Heart University, the VITA program "is a great way to get hands on training with the field of work I eventually hope to make a career out of. I am learning a tremendous amount about doing tax returns that I do not feel I would be able to receive just by sitting in a classroom."

VITA participation has been an accounting department elective at Sacred Heart University for 13 years, open to accounting students who have completed Federal Tax I. Professor Danny Pannese, a former IRS Field Office Director, has designed the VITA participation around three objectives: 1) developing interviewing skills through the use of a CD developed jointly by the IRS and the AICPA; 2) familiarizing the student with third party documents like W-2s, 1099, and 1098 forms, and 3) providing the students with an opportunity to serve the community.

In the fall, Sacred Heart students meet on campus with a representative of the IRS who explains the program from the IRS's perspective. They read the VITA texts and take the test online for Advanced certification during semester break. During the filing season, sixteen students in teams of two volunteer one evening per week at the Bridgeport Public Library where they prepare returns for low income families. Professor Pannese is the site coordinator, and students are also supervised by an IRS field agent and a former Sacred Heart MBA student.

"For many of these students it's a wake up call," Pannese says. "It might be the first time they have met with a single mom, and they have to ask, how do they manage, often on less money than the student has for normal expenses. It's a win/win situation -- for them and for the community. VITA participation is also good for resume building," he adds.

At the end of the filing season, Pannese's students write a lengthy reflection paper that identifies the benefits of their experience. These may include improved knowledge of tax law, interviewing procedures, and problem solving skills, Pannese says.

Baldi says that so far in this season, "All the tax returns were reasonably straightforward with W-2 forms, pensions, and social security, a few different credits, and some itemizing. Nothing very out of the ordinary. I felt as though I was very well prepared in any number of situations."

"I feel that students bring a sense of excitement and enthusiasm to the program," Baldi commented. "All of us that are enrolled are there because we want to learn more about taxes and get a real world, hands on experience working with clients of all different types.

"The program is a great way to help out the clients that come from all over Bridgeport," he says. "I don't think you realize the service you are providing until you actually get to see the faces of the clients when you tell them they are getting a refund," Baldi said. "Even if the clients have to pay, they are still extremely grateful that you prepared their taxes for them free of charge. It is really a nice feeling to know you are helping these clients out and maybe even enough to help them out a little financially."

Meg McCaffrey of Fairfield's Office of Service Learning met and spoke with many of last year's volunteers and was enthusiastic about the outcomes. "They gain so much by meeting with people and interacting with the community."

The IRS reported in May of 2007 that that VITA volunteers prepared over 900,000 federal income tax returns nationwide, an increase of 55 percent in only four years. An audit conducted by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) revealed that the accuracy of returns prepared by volunteers increased 17 percentage points in 2007 as compared to last year.

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