UB undergraduate Kamarah Caven figures she's logged hundreds of hours in the classroom tackling the basics and finer points of accounting. But she’s never sat down with a real, live client to put all of that knowledge into practice.
That changes today.
"Yes, I admit I am a little overwhelmed," Caven says, taking a seat at a table where UB accounting students provide free tax-preparation services. "But I’ve had good training and there is always someone nearby to help me if I have questions."
By April 15, Caven and her fellow students will have met with hundreds of people from all over Buffalo, helping to prepare tax returns for individuals and families with annual incomes below $50,000. Last year, 126 IRS-certified students from the School of Management provided nearly 2,200 hours of tax service, preparing more than 900 tax returns and bringing $1,353,406 back into the Buffalo community through the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program.
This year, the students expect to do even more.
The free service runs from February through mid-April and is coordinated by the UB chapter of Beta Alpha Psi, an international scholastic and professional organization for financial information professionals. To become certified, students attend a one-day training session and must pass basic and intermediate exams, as well as a standard of conduct (ethics) exam. The student site directors also take advanced exams.
From there, it’s all about gaining experience.
“At first I was just plugging in numbers, but over time I’ve developed a more conceptual understanding of what I'm doing," says Luwei Jiang, a senior who started volunteering when she was a sophomore. "The experience has really helped me on my exams and I've learned a lot about customer service.
“We aren’t just doing taxes,” she says. “We have to make people feel comfortable and trust us.”
By IRS estimates, the free service can save taxpayers between $100 and $300 in preparation fees. It can be especially valuable to low-income tax filers by helping them apply for earned income-tax credits that can provide a needed boost in annual income. The tax credits, which can reduce or completely eliminate income taxes by refunding taxes already withheld from wages, can mean as much as $5,028 for a family with two children.
Cumulatively, School of Management student volunteers have brought more than $4 million in tax refunds back into the Buffalo community over the past four years by preparing more than 3,000 tax returns. Approximately $725,000 was from the Earned Income Credit, helping families who need it most.
“Despite their class loads and other responsibilities, our students have been working virtually every weekend since February to make this program the outstanding success it has been,” says Arjang Assad, dean of the School of Management. “We could not be more proud of them and the impact they are making on the community with this initiative.”
For students, linking course concepts to real-world applications is a key benefit, according to UB’s Beta Alpha Psi president, Matthew Silver, who will receive his Bachelor of Science degree in accounting in May and his Master of Science degree in accounting next year. “We learn in class through textbooks and exams, but in the VITA setting, we actually see how it all plays out on someone’s tax return,” he says.
“I can see a noticeable difference in the confidence level of our students after they go through a season of VITA,” says Kathleen Nesper, assistant professor of accounting in the School of Management and faculty adviser to Beta Alpha Psi. “They are more self-assured and professional, and it makes a difference when they talk with prospective employers.”
Danny Chen says working on the VITA program helped him land a job. After he graduates in May with a Master of Science degree in accounting, he’ll be a tax analyst for IBM. “It was what we talked about most during my interview,” he says.
Chen volunteered as a tax preparer in his junior year and a reviewer in his senior year. This year, as a master’s student, he is a site director and co-chair of the program.
“IBM was really impressed with my growth and progression,” Chen says. “I sharpened my leadership and communication skills, and developed the ability to work under stress.”
Chen says a number of his fellow master’s students volunteered because it’s their last year in Buffalo. “It’s a good way to give back to the community that has been their home for the past five years.”
Members of the community are thrilled with the free service. “My preparer was excellent,” said one community member. “He was professional, informative and even gave me advice for itemizing my expenses next year.”
For more information, visit mgt.buffalo.edu/freetaxprep.