With tax season now over, except for everyone who filed an extension, college students filing taxes for the first time might be tempted to go to H&R Block or a local CPA to help them figure out how to properly obtain all the education tax credits and deductions they’re entitled to. Students at the University of Minnesota were able to bypass that step by paying a visit to the student activity center on campus where they got their taxes done for free by a small army of IRS-certified student volunteers who surface like clockwork from February to April of each year.
The tax-savvy students are part of a campus group called the Volunteer Tax Assistance Program (VTAP), one of the largest clubs on campus. The group prepares around 2,000 tax returns for free every year for university students, staff and members of the community, said Emily Holm, a senior at the Carlson School of Management who is one of VTAP’s directors.
“Word has really gotten around on campus. We have been fully booked all season from day one,” she said. “There hasn’t been one appointment that wasn’t filled.”
A FREE SERVICE
The University of Minnesota’s program, which is facilitated by the Carlson School of Management, is one of thousands of Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) sites across the country that give free tax help to qualifying individuals to low-to moderate-income individuals. At the Carlson School, individuals with an unadjusted gross income of $60,000 or less are eligible for the free service, Holm said.
VITA volunteers are trained to prepare basic tax returns, check for credits, deductions and other allowable expenses. Most VITA sites tend to be at community and neighborhood centers, libraries, schools and shopping malls, but increasingly they are popping up on university campuses like the Carlson School and others across the country. The programs tend to attract undergraduate business students as volunteers, who are drawn to the chance to get hands-on work experience and learn the ins and outs of tax software, e-filing and tax code regulations, Holm said. New students volunteers undergo several weeks of training in the fall, and each tax preparer must take an online test in order to get certified by the IRS.
Many of the student-run VITA sites on campuses have popped up in the last five to ten years. For example, the program at the Carlson School was established in 2006 with just five volunteers; fast forward a decade later and there are now 107 students volunteers, from undergraduate finance and accounting majors to MBA students, Holm said. The VTAP office is open from 9 am to 4 pm Monday through Saturday from Feb. 1 through April 15, with five appointments lined up each hour, Holm said.
1,500 TAX RETURNS AND MORE THAN $240,000 OF FREE TAX SERVICES
Last year, the group completed over 1,500 tax returns and saved students, faculty and community members over $240,000 in free tax services. This year, they are on track to complete 1,800 tax returns, meaning the amount of money VTAP will save the University of Minnesota community will be even more substantial, Holm said.
Despite their training, sometimes a volunteer may not know how to solve a specific problem that arises when they’re working with a client, Holm said. In those cases, the club’s leadership will form a team to research the problem and come up with the best solution for the client, she said.
“The volunteers do all that training beforehand, but honestly all the real training comes when they are actually working with clients,” Holm said. “That’s when all the learning happens.”
Another firmly established volunteer tax program was started in 2010 at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with the vision of launching a West Michigan Collegiate VITA Partnership. That group currently has over 100 volunteers hailing from Davenport, Cornerstone University, and Aquinas College, as well as community volunteers, and works in more than a dozen sites across West Michigan. For the 2015 tax season, the volunteers in that partnership prepared refunds totaling more than $7.8 million, giving more than 6,660 volunteer hours, according to Davenport’s website.
BYU, COLGATE AND UMASS ALSO PARTICIPATE
Other VITA campus programs exist at Brigham Young University, Colgate University and the University of Massachusetts, with many of these programs originating at the business schools on campus.
At the Carlson School, the program is a big draw for many of its student volunteers because of the networking opportunities the program offers them, particularly accounting and finance students, who make up the vast majority of the volunteers. For example, many of the students who volunteer in VTAP each year go to work at one of the Big Four accountancy firms, said Christina Shermoen, a senior at the Carlson School who also serves as a VTAP director of the group. This year alone, twelve of the students on VTAP’s leadership team are going to work at the Big Four firms, Shermoen said.
“The Big Four firms recognize how successful people in our program are,” Shermoen said. “The club is well-known by recruiters around campus, and we often have recruiters e-mailing our club asking for recommendations of VTAP volunteers who are interested in working at their firm.”
‘THE PROCESS IS REALLY TRANSPARENT’
Volunteering with VTAP helped Daniel Proulx, a Carlson senior who volunteered with the student group his first two years of college, land an internship at Land O’Lakes. He first learned about the club his freshman year when the VTAP directors visited his accounting class. At the time, he was considering majoring in finance or accounting, and decided to sign up. He spent the fall of his freshman year learning the tax software during training sessions, and by the time tax season rolled around, he was doing three four-hour shifts for the club a week preparing returns for clients. By his sophomore year, he’d worked himself up to the role of site coordinator at the VTAP office, training new volunteers and putting together training material for them. That hands-on experience proved to be valuable when he started looking for internships during his sophomore year, he said.
“I talked during my interview with Land O’Lakes about not just the skills needed to prepare a tax return but how I’d learned to communicate with clients in the office and quickly master a brand new system, process and subject like tax,” he said. “I don’t think I would have received that offer had I not been able to talk about my experiences working for VTAP in detail.”
Proulx, now a supply chain management major, doesn’t volunteer with the organization anymore, but still has stopped by the office the last two years to get his taxes done. He’s spread word about the organization to his friends on campus, as well as to his two brothers, also students at the school.
“The process is really transparent so you know and trust that they are doing your taxes correctly,” he said. “It really is just awesome. You’re getting your taxes done for free and these volunteers are really getting valuable experience. It’s a win-win.”
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