Dr. Cathleen Miller, an associate professor of accounting at UM-Flint runs the university's tax assistance program, VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance), which provides free help to those in the community.
She started it in 1984, as a student through the UM-Flint Accounting Club, and remained heavily involved since becoming a faculty member in 1998. Miller formed a course in 2005 for the VITA program. She continues to teach the course.
The Internal Revenue Service recently recognized the program for its decade of service since the program added the course. Miller spoke to University Relations about how this engaged learning initiative makes real differences in people's lives.
How are students involved and why does this help them, the university, and those within the community?
One of the main reasons I love working in VITA and teaching the course is that everybody wins! Students win, employers win, taxpayers win, and the community wins!
First, the VITA class offers our students the opportunity to apply their academic knowledge to real life situations. The students gain valuable experience and skills that enhance their higher education experience. In addition to learning tax law and a tax software program, the students learn soft skills, such as communication with the taxpayers (e.g. how to ask the right questions), communication with supervisors (myself and other reviewers), and communication as a team (e.g. working with each other to complete tax returns quickly and accurately). Often students tell me that the VITA course was the best course they took in the School of Management at UM-Flint.
Second, employers look for students who participate in VITA when hiring our students. They are aware of the benefits students gain in this program. For example, one employer recently asked for student resumes. When he received them, he went through them and found one student who listed VITA on his/her resume. He put that student's resume on the top of the stack to be interviewed first.
Third, most of the taxpayers we service cannot afford to pay a tax preparer to prepare their tax returns, and many are not skilled or willing to try to complete the returns themselves. This assertion is supported by the growth in the total number of taxpayers coming for service and more and more taxpayers needing prior year tax returns completed in addition to the current year. I truly believe that without our service, most of the taxpayers would not file a tax return and would not receive the much needed tax refunds/credits to which they are entitled. I have several stories of taxpayers who are so grateful for our service. Some are brought to tears when they learned they were receiving a larger than expected refund.
Finally, the refunds the taxpayers receive bring money into the City of Flint and Genesee County community. Without the VITA service, the community loses a valuable financial resource. Our students are making a large impact on our local community.
What are some of the key questions you see from the community at tax time?
Two questions taxpayers ask that always surprise me are: (1) How long have you been doing this service? I did not know you were providing this service. (2) Can you prepare prior year tax returns? Every year we get 15-20 people needing 2-3 prior year tax returns completed. Although we have provided the VITA service at the Flint Public Library for 30 years, we still get taxpayers coming for the first time.
How does the university work with the IRS?
I work closely with our IRS representative through the Coalition meetings and email conversations to plan, coordinate, and perform the VITA service. The IRS provides all of the training materials and the tax software. The University (School of Management) provides the equipment and supplies to prepare the tax returns. The School also generously supplies lunch for the students on tax preparation days.
Any thoughts on being recognized by the IRS?
I am very glad that the IRS started this recognition program a few years ago. The IRS now recognizes individual volunteers and VITA site locations for their significant dedication to the program. They recognize 10, 20, 30, and 40 year milestones. Although UM-Flint and the Flint Public Library participated in VITA since 1984, I submitted these sites for the 10 year recognition level because we started the tax preparation course and electronic filing of tax returns 10 years ago.
I am very happy to be a part of the VITA success at UM-Flint! I hope students and the community will be proud of the program as they learn about this 10 year milestone accomplishment.