By Ben Lewis
There aren’t many people who would pick tax season as one of their favorite times of the year. But a group of Ohio State students eagerly anticipates it as a chance to Pay Forward through the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program.
By providing free tax preparation services to low- to moderate-income taxpayers, the students have helped put more than $7.7 million in tax refunds back in the pockets of local residents over the life of the program.
“Our students are making sure they get every cent back to individuals and families in the local community,” said Waleed Muhanna, professor and chair of Accounting and Management Information Systems. “Not only is it a great team-building experience for the students, but it is a highly personal opportunity to hone their technical tax skills in a real-world setting and serve the community.”
The VITA program is available to households with income of less than $52,000, many of whom are eligible to receive refundable credits, such as the Earned Income Credit.
“It provides a service to members of the community who may not be able to afford or be willing to pay for tax preparation,” said Robert Dodson, a VITA site coordinator and third-year student at the Moritz College of Law. “There are several companies that provide similar preparation services, but they often charge a fee. With VITA, qualifying individuals are never charged for tax preparation.”
The Fisher College of Business Tax Clinic, now in its 11th year, partners with Godman Guild at one VITA site, while Moritz collaborates with the African American and African Studies Extension Center, a VITA site in its sixth year.
“This year we will have about 70 student volunteers from Fisher. We have the capacity to serve more than 400 low- to moderate-income taxpayers at the Fisher site alone, and I anticipate our students will log close to 800 hours of total service to the community,” said Stephanie Lewis, VITA site coordinator and senior lecturer at Fisher.
The United Way of Central Ohio assists the Ohio State sites with funding and organizing activities. The sites are members of the Tax Time Coalition, the umbrella organization for tax services provided by the United Way, AARP and the Ohio Benefit Bank.
“Ohio State students have been instrumental to the success of Tax Time’s VITA program,” said Carrie Almasi, director of Tax Time at the United Way. “Last year alone, Tax Time sites staffed by OSU student volunteers served almost 600 low- to moderate-income taxpayers in the Weinland Park and Near East neighborhoods. These volunteers helped local families claim more than $1 million in tax refunds.”
Prior to working at a VITA site, students are required to complete intensive technical tax and software training. All of the students receive certification from the IRS upon completing the training and passing an exam. There also are 11 students who have taken leadership roles as site managers and run the daily operations of the Fisher site.
“VITA provides a unique way to serve nearby families using what we’ve learned in the classroom,” said Emily Topp, an accounting graduate student and student site manager. “Not only does it help students reinforce and broaden their tax knowledge, but it also provides a much-appreciated service to our clients.”
Lewis said a number of students will be serving as financial coaches, which is a new role for Fisher students this year. “They will go through separate training organized by the United Way where they learn about various financial resources that can be offered to people coming to have their tax returns prepared, including the ability for taxpayers to have their tax refund loaded on a prepaid debit card and opportunities to receive incentives when they save money throughout the year.”
303. E Sixth Ave. Columbus, Ohio 43201
Open: Jan. 24-March 1
Fridays: 5-8 p.m. Saturdays: 10 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
African American and African Studies Community Extension Center
905 Mount Vernon Ave. Columbus, Ohio 43203
Open Feb. 1-March 8
Fridays: 5-8 p.m. Saturdays: 10 a.m.-3 p.m.
Individuals can schedule an appointment by calling 211 and requesting the Godman Guild or African American and African Studies Community Extension Center sites. As part of the program, free online tax preparation also is available through myfreetaxes.com/taxtime.