Johnson & Wales – Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA)
Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA)
Tax Relief – Johnson & Wale University’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) Program
Johnson & Wales University (JWU) students and faculty assist low-income individuals with tax preparation, as well as train volunteers from community-based organizations (CBOs) to become tax preparation volunteers at their organizations.
The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program (VITA) is a program sponsored by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), which provides tax preparation training for volunteers, who in turn provide free tax return preparation for low-income taxpayers. The JWU Graduate School has worked with the IRS on this Program for the past seven tax seasons. JWU, through the JWU Accounting Association, has participated in the IRS’ VITA Program since 1991.
JWU undergraduate faculty have served as VITA site coordinators: Professor Kevin Poirier 1991 and 1992; Professor Doonan 1993-1999; Professor Poirier 2000-2001; Professor Marie Higgins 2001-2012; and Professor Barbara Norris 2012-present. This year, JWU also participated in the FAST Program (Facilitated Self-Assistance Tax Prep), a new IRS program where qualifying individuals prepare their own returns with the help of certified volunteers. If individuals have a simple tax return and need a little help or do not have access to a computer, they can visit one of the participating tax preparation sites and an IRS-certified volunteer will guide them through the process. This year, JWU held four FAST sessions prior to starting the traditional VITA sessions.
Organizational Structure / Characteristics
JWU undergraduate Professor Barbara Norris, Coordinator of the IRS Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program, and other Department of Accountancy faculty, as well as accounting students, offer free tax help to low- to moderate-income citizens who cannot prepare their own tax returns. The accounting majors, as members of the JWU Accounting Association, are required to commit to an extensive training before they can prepare tax returns for individuals qualifying for this service. From February through April 15, the Program is advertised on jwuLink, a one-stop account for students and faculty to access JWU email, announcements and news, registration and grades, ulearn, JWU’s online learning course platform, and more. JWU faculty are emailed information about the VITA Program and asked to announce it in class and post it on ulearn.
Ranging in age from college students to senior citizens, the clients served are usually from the Providence, Rhode Island area, although volunteers prepare all necessary state tax returns for any state. Anyone who meets the income limits (under $49,000) and needs to have their federal or state taxes prepared can come to one of the preparation sites and have their taxes completed free of charge. 150 federal and state tax returns are prepared and e-filed each filing season, saving qualifying individuals hundreds of dollars of tax preparation fees.
On the JWU Graduate School level, during the 2011-12 academic year, graduate students in Professor Kevin Fountain’s ACCT 6021 Corporate Taxation class were provided the opportunity to participate in this service-learning project with the IRS to instruct volunteers in an eighteen (18) hour VITA course. The students worked diligently during their winter break to prepare the lecture material and to pass a two part competency test prior to beginning their instructor assignments. For seven hours on three consecutive Saturdays at community-based organizations (CBOs), the VITA students prepared their students to become certified volunteers at community and neighborhood centers, libraries, schools and shopping malls.
JWU offers computer labs for the tax program (TaxWise) training as well as a tax preparation site. JWU faculty are responsible for the training of volunteers, site support and the IRS provides the training materials and laptop computers. The JWU Accounting Association provides additional necessary office supplies and both the JWU Accounting Association and Department of Accountancy and Finance have funded refreshments for volunteers.
During the spring 2012 tax season, 13 graduate students successfully participated in the VITA Program as instructors at three inner city CBOs in the Providence area, training 20 volunteers. The multiplier effect of our students work is significant. For example; if these twenty volunteers, in turn, assisted twenty families to prepare their tax returns, our students effectively assisted four hundred low-income families.
Reports are received from the IRS related to number and type of returns prepared, accuracy of returns, amount of refunds, and number of participants. Over the past 3-5 years approximately 40 students and 9 faculty have participated each year providing more than 670 hours of service by students and over 120 service hours delivered by faculty.
In addition to the community service aspects of the Program, JWU students gain valuable experience in public speaking, teaching, and the ability to apply their classroom learning toward real-life applications. The graduate students who assisted with the VITA Program enhanced their teaching skills, increased their knowledge of tax theory and preparation and were introduced to community volunteers from diverse backgrounds and experience levels. In 2007, Dr. Fountain received a plaque from the IRS to recognize JWU’s continuing support of the VITA Program. Feedback from the VITA sites indicated that the students were well prepared to teach each lesson and that they interacted on a professional basis with the volunteers. Based upon the continued positive results, the IRS indicated they would like to continue working in conjunction with the Graduate School on this Program.
The undergraduate students gain important tax preparation training and experience, which also assists them in their preparation for their CPA’s. This service-learning program engages students in active learning and demonstrates the relevance and importance of academic work for their life experience and career choices; broadens perspectives of diversity issues, societal issues and enhances critical thinking skills; improves interpersonal skills to achieve success in professional and personal spheres; and develops civic responsibility through active community involvement. Through its sponsorship of the Program, JWU receives positive public relations, and increased visibility for its educational mission, as neighbors come to campus facilities to receive assistance with their taxes. The clients are relieved to have assistance in the sometimes difficult process of tax preparation.
The VITA Program is promoted and clients are recruited through weekly online e-news for JWU faculty and staff, as well as the JWU Magazine.
Susan Connery, Director, Feinstein Community Service Center
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