Students Give Financial Aid
March 22, 2012
By Elizabeth Chapin
In 1971, CSU Northridge professor Gary Iskowitz created a program to provide local taxpayers with free tax return preparation by accounting students. Iskowitz’s effort grew into a national Internal Revenue Service program called Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA).
Today, 12,000 VITA sites exist throughout the United States, providing both a valuable community service and a powerful hands-on learning experience for students.
More than 40 years since VITA was founded, the CSU still plays an active role. The IRS reports that 275,000 returns were filed at California VITA locations last year—and thousands of them were filed by CSU students. Nearly every CSU campus facilitates a VITA program where business and accounting students provide no-cost advice and assistance to senior citizens, people with disabilities, and anyone with an annual income less than $50,000.
The IRS partners with universities and other community organizations around the country, creating ideal relationships for serving the public and training volunteers. Students must be IRS-trained and certified before they can volunteer at a VITA site. Training consists of four intensive days where they learn everything from e-filing to how to make sure clients receive all of the tax credits they are qualified for.
IRS spokesman and CSU Northridge alum Raphael Tulino says that CSU students provide a valuable service to the many low-income filers in California who are entitled to tax refunds that they may not even know about.
“It’s encouraging to see the students volunteer for such critical outreach,” Tulino said. “A large portion of low-income taxpayers are also eligible for the earned income tax credit, which can substantially boost refunds, but many miss out on it so it's great to hear about such a robust CSU program.”
Tulino noted that when people spend the extra refund money that VITA helps them get back, it stimulates struggling local economies. For example, VITA programs at just seven CSUs generated more than $7.3 million for California’s economy last year.
CSU San Bernardino was one of those campuses, producing $1.25 million in refunds. CSUSB accounting lecturer and VITA coordinator Janet Courts says the money is encouraging in tough economic times.
“It’s exciting because that money comes back to the Inland Empire and is infused into the local economy,” Courts said.
VITA coordinators like Courts help students get the most out of the experience – knowing that the program gives them an incredible opportunity to gain knowledge and experience in their field of study.
Sonoma State accounting Professor Joe Standridge serves as an advisor for SSU’s School of Business and Economics student club, the Accounting Forum, which recently held a campus VITA clinic where 40 student volunteers met with taxpayers and organized, prepared and processed their returns. Standridge was delighted to see them apply what they’ve learned in class.
“The last couple years, a large percentage of our clients were fellow students, but that changed this year," Standridge said. “We had more people from the community, and that was fantastic. The students were able to take the classroom to the real world and got to interact with the public.”
This real-world experience is critical when accounting students begin to enter the workforce. CSU Monterey Bay accounting student Nicolette Morgan says VITA took the place of a big-city internship, which she says is difficult to acquire in CSUMB’s surrounding community.
“In our area, there aren’t as many outside opportunities for accounting students to get hands-on experience,” Morgan said. “For many of us, it’s the only real opportunity to apply what we’ve been learning in the classroom and an important step to prepare for a career.”
Morgan says VITA’s impact is not only economic and educational—it’s emotional. She referred to an instance where she was able to help a client who owed the IRS more than half of her $12,000 annual income. Morgan told the filer how to correct the mistakes she made the prior year, which set her up for future success with Uncle Sam.
“Accounting isn’t just numbers, it’s not just black and white,” Morgan said. “There’s an ethical aspect to preparing taxes. Each person has different needs and a different background that needs to be considered, so you have to think critically.”
When low-income taxpayers’ problems get a little trickier, student volunteers at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo’s Low Income Taxpayer Clinic (LITC) come to the rescue. Part of Cal Poly’s VITA program, LITC was initiated in 2010 through grants from Chevron and the IRS Taxpayer Advocate Service.
Under faculty supervision, LITC student volunteers actually represent low-income clients involved in tax controversies before the IRS and U.S. Tax Courts. Students also provide services for non-English speakers and educate the community about taxpayers’ rights and responsibilities.
From a simple W-2 question to representation in federal court, thousands of Californians are expected to seek out the help of a CSU student this tax season. With the state of the economy, the students should get a lot of experience.
“For lower-income filers, every dollar counts right now,” Morgan said. “Helping them out has been rewarding on so many levels.”
For more information about VITA or to find a site near you, check out the IRS website.
Find out more about VITA programs at the following campuses: