Student Perspective on the IRS’s VITA Program
Patrick E. Doyle, Michael W. Matt, and Bradley T. Owens
2005 - Many people are aware of the IRS’s Volunteer
Income Tax Assistance program, commonly known as VITA. What
they may not realize is the impact the VITA program has in
bringing federal and state income tax benefits to people with
low and moderate incomes. Many of the key participants are
not experienced professionals but students developing their
basic academic and social skills while improving the economic
status of VITA clients.
VITA program was initiated in 1969 under the IRS’s
mandate to provide free taxpayer assistance to those who
could not afford a paid preparer. The VITA program aided
104,000 taxpayers in 1970, its first year of operation.
According to the IRS, 70,000 VITA volunteers, working out
of 14,000 different sites, produced 1.9 million tax returns,
70% of which were e-filed, during the 2004 filing season.
The IRS VITA program comprises several targeted programs
for the general public, military personnel, and older Americans.
volunteers are not expected to be tax experts, but they
receive training specifically geared toward the type of
VITA client they will be assisting. Volunteers do not sign
any tax returns, and are protected from legal liability
by the Volunteer Protection Act of 1997. Volunteers are
often members of local charitable organizations. The IRS
also encourages participation by educational institutions,
which can provide computers and facilities to assist student
volunteers. Many colleges and universities across the United
States have participated in the VITA program. Students often
make ideal volunteers because they generally have excellent
computer skills, a desire to learn through experience, and
the motivation to provide service.
IRS has created Stakeholder Partnerships, Education and
Communication (SPEC) sites throughout the country to build
upon the volunteer model. Universities, other organizations,
and individuals that would like to find out more about becoming
involved in a VITA program can receive more information
from the IRS at www.irs.gov
or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
in New York State
accounting students at St. Bonaventure University participated
in an innovative New York State/IRS VITA program that is
geared toward preparing tax returns for individuals eligible
for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). The EITC is a refundable
income tax credit available to low-income workers with earned
income. The EITC has overtaken other transfer programs in
the amount of benefits provided to eligible claimants on
both the federal and the state level. In recent years, approximately
15% of individual federal individual tax returns have claimed
the credit. According to preliminary IRS data for 2003 returns,
17% claimed the EITC.
Exhibit 1 demonstrates that a significant portion of
federal EITC claimants have been VITA clients.
New York State tax assistance program was initiated three
years ago to encourage low-income workers to claim the EITC
through tax returns prepared for free. Sixteen states (Colorado,
Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts,
Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode
Island, Vermont, and Wisconsin) offer a state EITC. New
York provides a sizable state credit, which has steadily
increased from 7.5% of the federal EITC in 1994 to 30% in
2003. Almost 14% of New York State individual tax returns
have claimed the credit in recent years (Exhibit
workers eligible for the EITC are an important focus of
the IRS and New York State VITA programs. New York State
Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance Commissioner
Robert Doar has stated that “[t]he EITC has become
our largest, and most effective, anti-poverty program. The
EITC works because it supports work.” In 2002, more
than 50% of federal EITC claimants had adjusted gross incomes
under $15,000. And yet, IRS personnel estimate that more
than 320,000 New Yorkers eligible for the EITC fail to claim
University became the first educational institution in New
York to participate in the new tax assistance program in
2003 (for 2002 tax returns). Colgate does not offer accounting
or business courses, but became involved in VITA through
the research interests of an economics professor.
Bonaventure University joined the New York State program
for the 2004 filing season. Students that participated in
the VITA program were all accounting majors.
York State officials are in communication with additional
colleges about participating in the VITA effort for the
2005 filing season. The VITA program functions as a partnership
between the IRS and the New York State Office of Temporary
and Disability Assistance (OTDA). The free tax return assistance
is offered through a county’s department of social
services (DSS), and coordinated by the IRS and the OTDA.
During the 2004 filing season, 19 county DSS participated,
assisted by the Community Action Program (CAP) in two counties
and the United Way in two additional counties (Exhibit
3). According to OTDA, New York’s VITA volunteers
prepared a total of 2,214 tax returns in 2004, generating
average refunds of $2,500 for low-income working families.
Those interested in finding out more about the New York
State VITA program should contact the Office of Temporary
and Disability Assistance at www.otda.state.ny.us or e-mail
the Public Information Office at NYSPIO@dfa.state.ny.us.
at St. Bonaventure’s
New York State VITA program at St. Bonaventure University
was organized by the Bonaventure Accounting Association,
a student organization that promoted the project to accounting
students and organized the student side of the volunteer
effort. The accounting professors at St. Bonaventure were
initially contacted by the Cattaraugus County Department
of Social Services (CCDSS), but it was student members that
decided to take on the VITA project at the beginning of
the fall 2003 semester.
students were excited about the VITA project and looked
forward to the opportunity to apply their knowledge to real
tax returns while giving back to the local community. As
an added bonus, the volunteer time would count toward internship
requirements. Although a small group was expected for the
first year, over 40 students initially signed up, and the
final group of volunteers was around 30.
volunteers are required to attend training, which concludes
with preparing a sample return, passing a quiz, and receiving
certification. The CCDSS led three training sessions to
accommodate all of the potential volunteers. Based on their
IRS training, the CCDSS instructors had allotted two hours
for volunteer training, which ultimately took less time
than anticipated because of the accounting students’
background with the material.
signed up for specific morning, afternoon, or evening volunteer
timeslots on a schedule coordinated by a CCDSS staff member
and two Bonaventure Accounting Association officers. They
were generally assigned to timeslots in pairs, underclassmen
matched to upperclassmen.
general IRS VITA program is set up for taxpayers to walk
in without appointments to have questions answered and returns
prepared. The CCDSS understood that students’ busy
schedules would make a walk-in system difficult, so taxpayers
were required to make appointments. United Way volunteers
scheduled appointments and, after the first few no-shows
occurred, made reminder calls to taxpayers.
New York State VITA program is aimed at EITC eligible workers
with simple tax returns—Forms W-2 and 1099, plus the
EITC—that undergraduate accounting students can handle
without much training.
United Way volunteers screened taxpayers when they called
for appointments; students were instructed to tell anyone
with more complicated returns to see a paid preparer. Students
were also allowed to ask the CCDSS staff or United Way volunteers
for help, and did not have to prepare any returns they were
not comfortable with. The screening process worked well,
and only two taxpayers had to be turned away.
facilities are an important planning issue. The meetings
with taxpayers and the preparation of their returns took
place at the United Way office in Olean, New York. The CCDSS
staff handled e-filing the tax returns, because the United
Way office did not have Internet access.
taxpayers arrived, they were given a sheet to fill out with
basic information such as Social Security number, address,
marital status, and information about children, which made
it easy for volunteers to start preparing their returns.
After the returns were completed, multiple copies of the
forms for VITA and the IRS were made. The returns were e-filed
by CCDSS the following day (no one requested paper filing).
students quickly realized that they had to ask for all the
paperwork the clients could give, including W-2, unemployment,
and disability forms. Volunteers would sometimes finish
a return and then the taxpayer would produce yet another
form that was needed to complete the return correctly. Student
preparers initially found it difficult to ask for personal
information, but this became easier with practice.
a few returns, the process started to become familiar and
major problems were not encountered. The students had VITA
guides to help determine EITC and Child Tax Credit eligibility.
But once volunteers became more familiar with the rules,
they didn’t have to depend on the pamphlets as much.
student volunteers were initially nervous that people would
not trust them to prepare their tax returns correctly, and
there were a few instances when taxpayers did not seem completely
comfortable. Some commented on the preparers’ youth.
The students reflected on their experiences and came up
with some suggestions for future volunteers:
Dress up for appointments. People will be more comfortable
with volunteers that look professional. A suit and tie
are not necessary, but avoid t-shirts and sweatpants.
Make it a point to greet the person with a handshake and
introduce yourself. It almost always seemed to make taxpayers
If the training did not cover every situation encountered,
take the initiative to do extra work and track down the
necessary information. When in doubt, ask someone else.
There will be times when questions cannot be answered
and situations will be difficult to handle.
is one of the best ways to become involved in the local
community. The students signed up as VITA volunteers to
provide low-income members of the community with tax relief
and gain hands-on experience. Many taxpayer questions were
answered and concerns addressed. Nearly every individual
was surprised, elated, and grateful upon the completion
of their tax return.
the 2004 tax season ended, St. Bonaventure accounting students
had helped to prepare 104 tax returns, bringing $191,000
to the working poor of Cattaraugus County, of which $105,000
was EITC. While the gratitude of the taxpayers would have
been a sufficient personal reward, the IRS, the Department
of Social Services, and the United Way honored the students
with a dinner and awards ceremony. The program participants
appreciate the positive feedback and recognition that they
have received from the federal and state agencies.
student volunteers gained valuable experience in tax practice,
as well as in the ability to communicate with and interact
with a variety of people. Helping those who are in need
is one of the best feelings in the world. When a low-income
family walked into the VITA office with their children,
praying for an EITC refund so they could pay their electric
bill, getting them a sizable refund was an indescribable
feeling. Looking back, as much as we students were able
to give to the community, the experiences we received have
proved to be priceless.
E. Doyle, Michael W. Matt, and Bradley T.
Owens are senior/graduate accounting students at
St. Bonaventure University in New York. They are currently
enrolled in the five-year dual BBA/MBA program and expect
to graduate in May 2006.
authors would like to thank Susan B. Anders, PhD, CPA, for
her assistance, contributions, and guidance on this article.
Anders is an associate professor of accounting at St. Bonaventure
University and serves as the VITA Advisor. Professor Anders
is also a member of the CPA Journal Editorial Board.
editors would like to thank the students and administrators
at Baruch College for their assistance.
Note: The accounting students at St. Bonaventure
University were the first from an accounting program to
participate in an innovative 2004 New York State/IRS Volunteer
Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program aimed at low-income
workers qualifying for the federal and state Earned Income
Tax Credit. Three of these student volunteers provide some
general background information on the IRS and New York State
VITA programs, and then discuss their own experiences in
the student-managed program at St. Bonaventure.