Reprinted with permission from the Pennsylvania CPA Journal, a publication of the Pennsylvania Institute of Certified Public Accountants.
Experiential learning is hot, and Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) is one way that accounting students can both serve the community and take part in experiential learning. There are, however, obstacles involved in running a VITA site. Issues arise in balancing the educational role of a faculty member with a commitment to the clients. This article describes how we set up a site on campus and what to expect.
Ten years ago, the leaders of one of our student professional organizations learned about VITA, invited an IRS representative to campus, and decided to do the program.
We opened our VITA site with 14 students and two faculty members. The required support for the program, however, went beyond willing students and faculty. We needed computers to prepare returns, which required tech support and the availability of computer labs. That, along with a need for parking for clients, dictated that our program would be run on Saturdays.
Based on what we learned, here are some basic steps to take if you decide to start a program.
- Recruit volunteers – This includes tax preparers and support personnel.
- Train the volunteers – Be careful here. While the IRS provides training materials, they may not be sufficient for novices. In addition, the IRS training does not incorporate instruction regarding state returns.
- Find clients – In the early years, there were days when preparers outnumbered clients.It takes time. While you can advertise on social media or flyers (the IRS provides posters), our experience has been that word of mouth is the best advertisement.
Our site has grown dramatically over these 10 years, requiring management skills that we did not realize we had. We have added volunteers as well as clients. The 14 students grew to 60. A third faculty member joined us, and 10 student volunteers stayed on after graduation.
Campus vs. Noncampus
The goals differ for a campus VITA compared with a noncampus program. As educators, our first goal is to provide a valuable educational experience for students. Normally, but not always, that is consistent with the IRS goal of providing accurate tax preparation for as many clients as possible. While our site has grown over the years, we consistently prepare fewer returns per volunteer than other sites. We take time to instruct our students, not just correct their errors.
Another difference is that, on a college campus, most VITA volunteer experiences are short-lived; in our case, one year. We allow students to volunteer as early as their freshman year, and we have had at least one who volunteered all four years. Most, though, do not volunteer as freshmen, and many prior-year preparers get other opportunities in subsequent years. Approximately 75 percent of those certified as tax preparers this season are first-timers. At noncampus sites, some may have upwards of 80 percent returning volunteers. In an optimal setting, we would pair a “rookie” preparer with an experienced one. For us, the numbers just do not work. This can lead to quality control issues – also known as mistakes. One good feature of the VITA program is that the IRS stipulates “quality site requirements.” One of these is quality reviews. Every return must be reviewed by another person, so we catch a lot of the mistakes.
Another difference between a campus and a noncampus program is the availability of volunteers. Because one of our former colleagues works in AARP’s equivalent (Tax Counseling for the Elderly), we can contrast some of the differences. This year we provided 24 hours of training – three eight-hour Saturdays – covering tax fundamentals, software, and customer service. Our former colleague’s site conducted two weeks of training for returning volunteers with an additional week for new volunteers. While we would like to have more training – maybe 32 hours next year – we have to work with the availability of our students, who can be limited by university exam schedules and vacations.
We love our VITA program, and look forward to the hands-on work with our students and each other. While our program provides a valuable service to the community, it is our students who benefit the most from it. They gain technical knowledge about federal, state, and local taxation. More importantly, they gain valuable experience dealing with the public.
Steven Balsam, CPA, PhD, is a professor and Merves Senior Research Fellow in the department of accounting at the Fox School of Business at Temple University in Philadelphia. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Judith S. Flaxman, CPA, is an adjunct assistant professor in the department of accounting at the Fox School of Business at Temple University. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
David H. Ryan, CPA, PhD, is an associate professor in the department of accounting at the Fox School of Business at Temple University. He can be reached at email@example.com.