Give your students real-world tax experience with a VITA program

Students learn tax while providing a much-needed service to their communities.

February 9, 2016

There are plenty of good reasons for a college to start a Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program: Students get real-world training, the IRS provides plenty of support, and community members receive a valuable service free of charge. But for Robyn Barrett, CPA, CGMA, who coordinates the VITA program at St. Louis Community College, the best reason is the perspective the programs offer to accounting students.

“Their eyes are opened to a different level of how people live,” said Barrett, an associate professor of accounting. “They’re seeing people come in to get their taxes completed who are surviving on $13,000 a year. And they’re seeing families of four that are living on $30,000 a year. Also, the people they’re doing the taxes for look just like them.”

VITA’s origins date back to 1969 with a precursor program at California State University, Northridge. Such programs have since spread to thousands of locations across the country, with IRS-certified volunteers providing free help with tax returns to low- and moderate-income taxpayers, as well as people with disabilities, the elderly, and limited English speakers.

“It’s a really, really neat experience,” said Amy Cooper, CPA, faculty adviser for the VITA program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF). “It’s unlike any volunteering experience I’ve done.”

Advisers say VITA programs give students valuable experience that can help them in their future careers, as it allows them to work on real tax returns while also developing nontechnical skills.

“The emphasis on soft skills can’t be underestimated,” said Nina Dorata, CPA, Ph.D., who runs the VITA program at St. John’s University in Queens. “The students learn how to deal with clients face to face, and they’re in a position to deliver good news but also bad news if the taxpayer owes money.”

The Volunteer Protection Act of 1997 shields VITA programs and volunteers from liability as long as they act “within the scope of the program and harm was not caused by willful or criminal misconduct, gross negligence, reckless misconduct, and conscious flagrant indifference to the rights or safety of the individual harmed by the volunteer,” according to the IRS VITA handbook.

If you’re interested in starting a VITA program at your school, here are some steps to follow:

Get the full details from the IRS. The VITA/TCE IRS Volunteer Site Coordinator Handbook offers detailed instructions for starting and operating a VITA program. But, in a nutshell, you’ll need to establish one or more sites for processing taxes, recruit and train volunteers, each of whom must pass an online test administered by the IRS, and get the word out to prospective clients.

Determine whether students will receive credit for participating. Some VITA programs are extracurricular activities only, but students at St. John’s get extra credit and a notation on their transcript for participating in the VITA program, and they can apply for academic service learning credits. The 14-year-old St. Louis program is set up as an actual college course and internship, and students receive three hours of credit for taking part.
Secure necessary approvals. The level of permission you’ll need depends on whether you want to offer students academic credit for participation. At St. Louis, the accounting department had to secure approval from the college’s leadership team to establish its academic VITA program. At St. John’s, launching the program only required approval of the department chair, though other university officials played a role in securing the on-campus tax-preparation site.

Consider partnering with organizations in your community. The VITA program at St. John’s University had been inactive for years before Dorata decided to bring it back around 2008. After the first year, she realized it was too large a project for a single faculty member.

“I couldn’t supervise 30 people as an extracurricular activity,” said Dorata, professor and assistant chair of the accounting and taxation department at St. John’s. “In 2009 I partnered with Food Bank for New York City—they’re a significant provider of social services in the metropolitan area, particularly New York City and the boroughs. They had been running a VITA program themselves.”

St. John’s and its not-for-profit partner now operate a physical VITA site on campus and at other locations around the city, as well as a virtual site established in 2014, Dorata said. 

Neither the St. Louis nor the UAF programs partner with not-for-profits the way the program at St. John’s does. But Cooper recruits clients in conjunction with Alaska Native corporations, which are similar to American Indian tribes in other parts of the United States. The program had been using slow, outdated hardware provided by the IRS before one of the corporations offered an upgrade, Cooper said.

“They donated seven computers and three printers and asked if we would do a session just for their shareholders,” she said.

Recruit and train volunteers. Advisers recruit volunteers via student groups, email blasts, and faculty recommendations. The volunteers are usually accounting students, though St. John’s occasionally brings in law students as well. VITA training sessions generally take place in a classroom setting and range from a few hours to a few weeks in length.

As a prerequisite for service, each volunteer must score 80% or better on an online exam offered by the IRS. Volunteers get two chances to take the exam. They must also complete Volunteer Standards of Conduct training in ethics.

During the actual tax preparation, supervisors at each VITA site check the volunteers’ work before filing returns. Second-year volunteers sometimes serve as supervisors. At St. Louis Community College, Barrett and another faculty member personally check each return.

“One of us will organize a return before giving paper copies back to the students,” Barrett said. “The students will have clients verify the details, and then usually later that evening I’ll go through the process of actually filing the returns.”

Promote the program. Colleges use a variety of means to promote VITA services, including flyers posted around campus and notices on social and traditional media. The group that started the St. Louis program went to a local TV station and held up signs outside the windows of a popular morning show to advertise the school’s free tax services. But word generally spreads quickly: VITA programs sell themselves, faculty advisers say.

“We don’t do a huge marketing push,” Cooper said. “We tend to be pretty busy.”

Eddie Huffman is a Burlington, N.C.-based freelance writer.