Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Clinic (VITA) exceeds student, faculty expectations
By J.P. Krahel, Ph.D, CPA, associate professor of accounting
For the first time in its history, Loyola University Maryland opened its doors as a Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) clinic. Local citizens and families visited the site at the Loyola Clinical Centers in Belvedere Square to have their state and federal income taxes prepared by trained and IRS-certified Loyola student volunteers.
The center far surpassed expectations in its first year—all while building a strong foundation for future success. “Our expectation was to perhaps complete 100 returns in our first year,” said Frank Izzo, CPA, executive in residence of accounting. “We took our time to get started because we wanted to make sure we did it right.”
From mid-February through early April 2019, 26 student volunteers—under the supervision of Izzo and fellow site coordinators Eric Long, ’19, Dina El Mahdy of Morgan State University, Jane Meyer, and Rob Bader of the Maryland CASH Campaign—took appointments, met with taxpayers, and helped them prepare their returns—all at no charge. Students spent nearly 350 person-hours volunteering at the site, preparing more than 200 returns and facilitating the return of more than $260,000 in refunds to the local community.
The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program offers assistance to people whose gross income is $55,000 or less, who have disabilities, and/or who do not speak or who speak limited English. Many universities offer VITA clinics, including Towson University, the University of Maryland, and Morgan State University.
One of the distinctive and most beneficial aspects of Loyola’s clinic is its location, which provides proximity to underserved communities, namely the York Road corridor. Historically, this area has served as a racial and economic dividing line. A VITA clinic in this area is one small step toward realizing greater socioeconomic equality.
This location and its services are especially vital given the alternative tax preparation services in the area. Many tax preparers will offer smaller cash advances to clients and then keep the full refund, effectively charging exorbitant interest. For example, a taxpayer entitled to a $1,000 federal refund may be offered an $800 check, with the tax preparer collecting and keeping the full refund issued by the IRS.
VITA volunteers are expressly prohibited from charging fees or interest and are unable to make such cash advance offers, protecting their clients’ finances and serving them with integrity.
"In a world where it's far too easy to be taken advantage of, the program offers a safe haven which encourages financial security, knowledge, and wellbeing," said Long, an accounting major. "I'm glad to have taken part in this new chapter Loyola is embarking on and in finding a way to connect Jesuit core values with applicable and relevant accounting academics."
Student volunteers in the VITA program also realize several key benefits of participation. Most practically, they gain a deep familiarity with the inner workings of personal income tax preparation, a skill that will benefit them for the rest of their lives.
“My experience reinforced my accounting skills as well as my customer experience skills, my communication skills, and my organizational skills,” said Megan Saunders, ’19, a student volunteer at Loyola’s VITA clinic who double majored in accounting and information systems.
Engaging with members of the Baltimore community in this way exposes students to the financial burdens and disparity of resources to underserved populations. To prepare someone’s taxes is to learn a lot about them, and I hope this experience opens the eyes of my students to the realities, challenges, and injustices that others face.
“I am thankful for this volunteer opportunity, in which I was able to not only volunteer my time to help people in Baltimore City with their taxes,” said Saunders. “I also had the opportunity to make improvements to a new program. Over the course of my experience, I've really seen the program grow. I saw client satisfaction increase, which was a very rewarding feeling, because I was able to play a part in improving an already amazing program.”