October 2001

Students Get Feet Wet in Lending a Hand

The IRS’ Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program Connects Students With Their Communities
By Simon Eskow

Christian Perkins faced her most memorable tax cases as a senior accounting major at Ithaca College.

As part of her elective tax class, Perkins and other students participated in the school’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, an Internal Revenue Service initiative that trains volunteers to help low-income taxpayers, seniors and others file their tax returns.

“The college has a special relationship with the facility across the street,” said Perkins, a staff accountant with Sciarabba Walker & Co. in Ithaca, referring to a senior citizen residence in the community. “With the seniors, most of those returns are more challenging because they had more investments set aside, and required Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) reporting, and it got us into a wide variety of tax issues. And dealing with some of them, there was this whole new thing of reassuring them that we would do them accurately. It was challenging.”

Although the program takes in volunteers of all sorts, students enjoy particular benefits in helping taxpayers. Accounting students, professors and participants get a real taste of what it’s like working in a tax practice as they also become involved in community service and aid people in an important way.

“It’s really the perfect environment to get your feet wet,” Perkins said. “You wouldn’t want to be green going into a firm not knowing how to deal with a taxpayer. It’s a good way to figure out if you really want to do this.”

The VITA and Tax Counseling for the Elderly programs train volunteers between November and January to help low-income taxpayers and others who may have difficulty filling out their 1040 forms. Although officials didn’t have statistics for how far reaching these programs are, an IRS spokesman said that the service trained more than 1,200 volunteers who served taxpayers in 600 locations in the New York metropolitan area. This amounted to 53,750 residents receiving help.

The VITA program at Baruch College in New York City began nine years ago as a single site on campus, but has since flowered into a kind of tax practice with satellite offices throughout the city.

“We estimate, based on data collected over the past couple years, that the schedules our students help complete represent $65,000 worth of work if (the taxpayers) were to go to (a tax preparation service),” said Professor Ron Aaron, associate dean of students at Baruch College and advisor to the Golden Key Club, which initially became involved with the program.

Baruch students, like all other volunteers, must be trained by the IRS and pass a take-home test to advise clients. Aaron said the school starts with 300 to 400 students, but ends up with 100 students when tax season rolls around. They search for volunteer locations—schools and community facilities—and devote two hours a week for a six-week period. The facilities are sprinkled through the city to reach various communities, especially different immigrant populations.

“If we do something down in Chinatown, we’ll try to find students who can speak Mandarin or Cantonese,” said Aaron. “Or in Brighton Beach, we’ll utilize students with Russian speaking skills…The importance was to bring it into the neighborhood…and in essence it brings some basic income tax assistance, free of charge, down to those people who can’t go to a tax assistance service and who panic.”

Aaron said that 95 percent of the volunteers are accounting majors.

“It’s a learning experience for them,” he said. “It’s like managing a non-profit: you have to do everything from recruitment to site evaluation and development.”

Unlike many other VITA participants, the program at Ithaca College is considered an “employer site,” which means the volunteers may conduct more complicated tax returns than encountered in a 1040EZ.

“We have a special dispensation,” said Al Cohen, associate professor of accounting at Ithaca College. “Therefore, our program touches all income limits; it’s anyone belonging to the community.”

The program is in its sixth year at Ithaca and comprises part of the requirements for a tax elective, and includes many things that provide a hands-on experience similar to that of a professional tax practice. Cohen said that he reviews all the forms, and, following tax season, there is also a mock peer review. Students work together as well to check over each other’s work.

“It’s an awesome experience—everyone works hard,” Cohen said. “One experience I had once was where two students were found by security guards working in my office at two in the morning. The guard asked them: ‘What are you doing here?’ They were working on tax forms.”

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