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March 17, 2011 Volume 32, No. 24

Students and Extension specialists team up on tax preparation

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FINANCIAL AID Shawn Finney, right, a senior in MU's Department of Personal Financial Planning, assists graduate student Nicholas Spina in preparing documents during a tax preparation session in Cornell Hall. On-campus sessions allow students to gain experience assisting students and members of the local community. Rob Hill photo


Volunteers help low-wage earners lower their taxes

Real-world experience can be the best learning tool. And with people across Missouri preparing their tax returns, the University of Missouri’s Department of Personal Financial Planning is giving students the chance to learn by doing while providing a service to the community.

In the last three years, the department has prepared about 10,000 tax returns through the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, or VITA.

There are two different facets of VITA. An on-campus component is run by students who volunteer to prepare tax returns, Meanwhile, University Extension specialists provide tax assistance to low-income families around the state.

“We talk about tax preparations and refunds and that usually leads to other questions,” Andrew Zumwalt, associate state specialist for financial planning, said. “A lot of time people come in for their taxes and after that, they have a personal finance question. So you are able to slip in that education, as well.”

The roots of VITA date back to 1993, when the Internal Revenue Service reported that one in four people eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit, which helps low-income individuals and families lower their taxes and maximize their returns, were not taking advantage of it.

Eligibility for the credit is determined based on earnings, filing status and eligible children. According to the IRS, last year more than 26 million low-to-moderate income workers claimed the credit, obtaining an extra $2,200 on average.

About a decade ago, University of Missouri Extension began to entice field faculty to get involved in VITA.

“We wanted to plant some seeds out in the state,” Brenda Procter, associate state extension specialist said.

The on-campus assistance allows student volunteers to gain knowledge of tax law, while earning valuable experience. In other communities, local volunteers take training and step up to prepare taxes.

“You’re educating the volunteers,” Procter said. “But you are also giving them a lot of skills. People who hire out of our program are shocked at how much more prepared our students are. They get a full semester of one-on-one counseling and tax preparation skills. That really makes our students more appealing.”

Experience is just part of what is gained by the students that are volunteering with the program.

“It’s a very rewarding experience to see a client’s face when we tell them how much their refund will be,” Kelly Hundsdorfer, a PFP student who is a volunteer this semester, said. “I love working with people and helping others.”

The stories that come out of the experience can be memorable. For instance, one client that Hundsdorfer worked with was excited to use her refund to get a puppy.

“She wouldn’t stop discussing what breed, color and name it was going to be,” Hundsdorfer said of the excited client. “It’s things like that where I stop and realize how much this program is helping our clients to fulfill their simplest wishes.”

The program that is done off-campus reaches all corners of the state and is a different program, as the secondary benefit of educating students does not exist. An aspect of that program that can be unseen is the economic impact on a community.

“Putting money in the hands of the low-income has a greater impact,” Procter said. “They are going to spend every dollar they have and it will multiply through the community, as they spend most of it locally to meet basic needs.”

— Joshua Murray