posted February 11, 2013

Hope Students Help Others Prepare Tax Returns through VITA Program

Just because tax season is unavoidable doesn’t mean it has to be awful.

And where better to demonstrate that idea than a place with “Hope” in its name?

Hope College accounting students are helping area residents prepare their taxes and file electronically through the IRS-sponsored VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance) program, serving others and gaining hands-on experience in their chosen field at the same time.  They are working in a computer laboratory in the college’s Martha Miller Center for Global Communication every Saturday from January 26 through April 13 except for March 16 and March 23 (during spring break), each committed to providing approximately 50 hours across the duration of the program.

Last year, approximately 50 clients took advantage of the service at Hope, which is in its second year as an approved site for VITA.  The college is participating as a member of the West Michigan VITA Collegiate Partnership, which features a total of 14 tax sites in Coopersville, Grand Rapids, Hastings, Holland Kalamazoo and Wyoming.

While many of the returns were simple and easily handled last year, all of the students were amazed by some of the complexities that were brought in the door.  The Hope project’s faculty coordinator, Herb Martin, has more than 30 years of tax experience, and he had to use reference resources to help the students with some complex situations.

“Very few tax returns are prepared, even by professionals, with ‘drive-thru’ service,” commented Martin, an associate professor emeritus of accountancy.  Returns are reviewed by two other people before final filing.

Administered by the IRS, the VITA program originated with the Tax Reform Act of 1969 as part of the increased emphasis on taxpayer education programs, according to Herbert Martin, associate professor emeritus of accountancy, who in retirement continues to coordinate Hope’s participation. The VITA program offers free tax help for low- to moderate-income individuals (defined by the Earned Income Tax Credit threshold), persons with disabilities, the elderly and those having limited English proficiency.

The volunteers have all been trained and certified according to standards set by the IRS.

In order to ensure consistent treatment of taxpayers and accurate return preparation, IRS established certain requirements for participation.  Link and Learn Taxes is provided for the students to link them to quality e-learning solutions.  The web-based program provides courses in Basic, Intermediate, and Advanced, along with a refresher course for returning volunteers. This training prepares volunteers to provide quality tax return preparation services. This interactive course teaches the basics to accurately prepare income tax returns for individuals, and users can obtain volunteer certification along the way at their own pace.

Students make their way through lessons that include tax topics, case studies and interview simulations. Link & Learn Taxes uses pop-up windows to connect to forms, publications and other resource materials. More knowledgeable students can use the course as a refresher. Link & Learn Taxes presents tax law through a variety of adult learning strategies including graphics, real-world scenarios and interview practice. Users can review the tax law material, listen to mock interviews and complete sample tax return preparation scenarios.

IRS provides tax preparation software for its tax preparation sites free of charge.  Two products are available:  desktop and online. The current software is TaxWise.

“We use TaxWise Online and students get experience with tax preparation software and the software helps us by giving feedback on errors and omissions,” Martin said.

The participating Hope students, all senior public-accounting majors, are Nicole George of Hamilton, Courtney Killeen of Williamston, Grace Martin of Dexter, Kyle Sutton of Farmington Hills and Michael Van Laan of Grand Rapids.  In addition, senior public-accounting major Mike Kroneman of Okemos, who is a returning VITA preparer, is serving as a site coordinator.

The VITA service at Hope is funded in part by the college's CrossRoads Project, a program that helps students think in theologically creative ways about their vocation.

More information, including the ability to schedule appointments, is available online at taxhelp.davenport.edu.