Accounting Students Donate Tax-Preparation Help
School of Management Volunteers Offer Assistance Through IRS Program
Mar. 1, 2010
While some of us may dread the annual run-up to the April 15 income-tax deadline that begins in January, some UT Dallas accounting students have taken a charitable shine to the interval, turning it into their own special season of giving.
This year, as last, about 50 accounting volunteers are donating time and expertise to the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance—VITA—program, an Internal Revenue Service undertaking that provides tax-prep help free of charge to people with low to moderate incomes. Eligibility caps vary according to tax-filing status, but broadly speaking, the rules say VITA client earnings must fall well below $49,000 a year.
Last year, accounting students from the UT Dallas School of Management helped 400 individuals apply for refunds and for credits that low-wage workers can use to reduce their tax bills. Working at the VITA location in the New Hope Lutheran Church on Peavy Road in Dallas, the students logged 700 volunteer hours. Their clients qualified for just under $180,000 in total credits. They also filed for slightly more than $628,000 in refunds. That averaged out to a $1,571 reimbursement per filer.
Showing up at the church for a training session last month, School of Management senior Amanda Ferrell said she was coming back for a second VITA stint because she really enjoyed her first foray last year. On average, her 2009 customers qualified for $3,000 to $4,000 in refunds from the government, said Ferrell, an accounting and information management major. The single-largest reimbursement she helped file for came to $8,000.
“I like taxes, and I do taxes,” Ferrell said. “A lot of people just have no idea how to prepare a tax return.”
The IRS estimates more than 80 percent of American households use tax software or a tax preparer to help do their taxes. But tax-filing bewilderment—often coupled with relentless financial pressure—leads many needy people to fall victim to what Dallas neighborhood activist Kerry Goodwin calls predatory tax preparers.
Goodwin, who oversees the UT Dallas volunteers, views these preparers as shady operators who often set up shop in low-income communities. There, he says, they prey on an unsophisticated clientele by charging exorbitant filing fees, then offering an instant advance—in the form of an expensive loan—on any expected refund. Interest on these largely unregulated “refund-anticipation” or “rapid-assurance loans”—RALs—“can exceed 600 percent,” Goodwin told Ferrell and other volunteers. That means borrowers can give up more than half of their refunds paying charges on what amounts to their own money, he said.
Combating such victimization is part of Goodwin’s job as the crime-fighting coordinator of the Ferguson Road Initiative. A nonprofit grassroots venture of 34 neighborhood associations in the White Rock Hills area of Far East Dallas, the initiative aims to stop urban blight and failing schools while renewing economic vitality in a triangle that lies southwest of I-635 between Garland Road and I-30.
The initiative also partners with Earn It, Keep It, Save It, a United Way program endorsed by Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert to help more North Texans achieve financial stability. To Goodwin, VITA aids the effort by providing his constituents no-cost means to “get their taxes done in a timely, correct and safe manner.”
One benefit to School of Management students, he pointed out at the January training session, is that volunteering “can lead to good employment opportunities for you in the future.”
The VITA program and UT Dallas connected in the fall of 2008 because of master’s-degree student Lauren Jobe. Now president of the School of Management chapter of the national accounting honor fraternity Beta Alpha Psi, Jobe lined up fraud specialists last school year from the Dallas office of Ernst & Young to address a chapter meeting. “They spoke about their work and also briefly mentioned a few volunteer efforts that they participate in, including VITA,” Jobe remembered. Their remarks prompted her to contact Goodwin and the IRS.
Last year, Ernst & Young volunteers, who served at some of the more that 57 VITA locations throughout Dallas, backstopped School of Management students and other volunteers from United Way, other corporations, neighborhood associations and churches, as the onsite professionals who double-checked volunteer filers’ work.
Just as every VITA return undergoes at least one of these “quality assurance reviews,” every VITA worker must earn an online certificate to qualify to do taxes at a basic, intermediate or advanced level.
“Kerry [Goodwin] and I were extremely pleased at the level of enthusiasm shown by the UT Dallas volunteers and at the number of UT Dallas students that were interested in being volunteers,” said Jen Baskin, Ernst & Young’s chief VITA coordinator.
“It takes a special person to be a VITA volunteer,” she added, “and the efforts of the UT Dallas students were greatly appreciated.”
This year besides Beta Alpha Psi and Professional Program in Accounting students, Jobe recruited members of School of Management chapters of Students in Free Enterprise and the Texas Society of Certified Public Accountants to participate.
Grateful for the commitment, Goodwin pointed out that VITA volunteers under his auspices have processed more than a million dollars in refunds in the past three years. And, he predicted, “we’re going to do a million dollars this year alone.”
UT Dallas accounting students Amanda Ferrell (left) and Lauren Jobe (right) help IRS VITA coach Charles Taylor carry volunteer materials to a training session. Jobe was instrumental in getting the volunteer program started.
Ferguson Road Initiative crime-fighting coordinator Kerry Goodwin (left) works with IRS agent and VITA coach Charles Taylor.