BMCC students gain valuable experience as IRS-certified volunteers providing free tax preparation through the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA).
Accounting Professor Angela Jervis started the VITA program at BMCC in 2013.
“I was a member of the Student Affairs committee of the BMCC Academic Senate, and one of the things we wanted to do was encourage students to do more volunteering,” Jervis says. “I recognized that the VITA program would be an ideal opportunity for our students to put into practice, what they are learning in their accounting classes, and to help their communities, so I brought it to BMCC.”
The program is currently coordinated by accounting professors Joel Barker, Corinne Crawford and Angela Jervis.
Crawford, who was just ranked #3 among the Top 10 Accounting Faculty in New York according to The Accounting Path, says the program trains students to prepare returns and ensure that people who are eligible for tax credits, receive them. “About 20% of those eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit, never apply for and receive the refund, which averages to about $2,074,” she says, “and of those who do apply, over half seek assistance from paid tax preparers who take a 12 percent cut of their refund.”
Along with Jervis, Crawford and Barker, other accounting professors teaching in the VITA program are Sharon Brickman and Barry Cooper.
IRS seal of approval
So far, 65 BMCC students have signed up for the VITA training at BMCC in January 2016, says Crawford.
The training takes place at a branch of the NYC Food Bank, which launched its Tax Assistance & Financial Services Program in 2002 and hosts 16 tax preparation sites in all five boroughs of New York City. BMCC is one of nine partners with the Food Bank, and provides the highest number of volunteer tax preparers.
“Our students are beloved by the program, because they speak so many languages,” says Crawford.
In their training, “students focus on state and federal tax law in a one-week session led by BMCC accounting professors,” says Crawford. “They also work with IRS training software, Link & Learn, at an IRS site and take a certification test on tax law.”
If they pass that test, the students attend a session led by IRS trainers, complete at least eight hours of tax preparation for eight weeks and receive their IRS certification.
Class concepts in real-world applications
Accounting majors Marquise Clemons and Tornike Nizharadce have undergone the VITA training, and had some surprises, preparing returns.
“Sometimes people get upset about the money,” says Clemons. “They hear about a friend’s tax return and expect the same amount. They’re already planning what to do with the money and don’t understand why they’re getting it in the first place. They think it’s just free money from the government. So we’re kind of educating them.”
He adds that people who haven’t filed their income tax returns consistently or haven’t claimed the correct amount of dependents are surprised by what they learn when they sit down with the VITA volunteers, who learn quite a bit themselves, from the experience.
“It was good to have the VITA training and taxation class at BMCC at the same time,” says Nizharadce. “We dealt with the standard tax forms such as 1040 and all the schedules, and we filed everything in a tax database which I had used in a taxation class.”
In addition, Clemons and Nizharadce were impacted personally, by preparing tax returns.
“You have this duty to help people out and guide them,” says Nizharadce. “You work with people who maybe don’t have a home, or are struggling with money. Things like the Earned Income Tax Credit can be very helpful to them.”
They recommend the VITA training to classmates. “Professors tell you exactly what is going on, and guide you in what to focus on,” says Nizharadce.
“I did the taxes for someone who happened to be a college student,” says Clemons. “I might have changed his mind to become an accounting major.”