UW Today

April 6, 2011

April 18 is coming, and UW business students are helping to ease the pain

News and Information

Need tax help?

  • The UW students will provide tax assistance 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesday and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday through April 14 to those who qualify at the Lake City Neighborhood Center, 12525 28th Ave NE in Seattle.

If youve been struggling to complete your income tax return before April 18, consider the student members of the UWs Beta Alpha Psi. They had already completed 343 returns by the end of February, and they arent even their own.

Of course, there are about 70 students signed up for the job, but each had to complete 16 hours of training before they started and put in at least 16 hours working on returns. And the pay? Zero.

The students are participating in an annual volunteer project called VITA — Volunteer Income Tax Assistance. As members of Beta Alpha Psi, an honorary for financial information students (accounting, finance and information systems), the job is right up their alley.

“Our student group has have been involved in this project for at least 24 years that Im aware of,” said Deborah Medlar, senior lecturer in accounting and adviser for Beta Alpha Psi. “Probably its longer than that.”

VITA is run by the Internal Revenue Service, locally in collaboration with King County United Way. Centers are established around the city where people with incomes below $50,000 can go to get free assistance with their income taxes. The UW Beta Alpha Psi chapter staffs one such center.

UW students Gurneet Randhawa, center, and Stephanie Chin help a client during the 2010 Volunteer Income Tax Assistance project.

UW students Gurneet Randhawa, center, and Stephanie Chin help a client during the 2010 Volunteer Income Tax Assistance project.

Of course, the students arent out there alone. There is a site manager who is a tax professional, and local accounting firms send volunteers as well. Typically a student works with a client, plugging in the numbers on an electronic form. The form is reviewed by another student before its turned in to the site manager, who is responsible for submitting all the forms.

“In earlier years, the IRS would do in-person trainings for the students,” Medlar said. “Now its all done electronically. Students have to complete the training before they can volunteer.”

Despite the time consuming nature of the work, Beta Alpha Psi members come out in droves every year. “Its one of the more popular service programs,” said chapter President Brooke Tibbles. “Its really applicable to our major, and you get to help people.”

Tibbles explained that Beta Alpha Psi members need to fulfill a certain number of service hours each year, but this is one of the few projects in which they get to interact with the people they are helping.

“Being able to meet with people was what I enjoyed when I did it,” Tibbles said. “When you work on income tax you have to ask people about their lives, so Id get into conversations with clients. I remember one session I had was with a woman with a low income, but she had two sons and they both had full ride scholarships to different universities. I told her how great I thought that was.”

Lisa Meyer, who heads the Beta Alpha Psis service efforts, said the training students received was very helpful.

“I helped one woman who had her own business,” Meyer said. “She had heard there was a credit for the first $3,000 of expenses for your business. None of us had any idea what she was talking about, but the way they train you is, you learn how to use the software and how to plug things in. So even though I didnt know the specifics on that, I was able to sit down with her information and plug in pretend numbers and see what it would do to her taxes and if she was better off trying to find more expenses shed made to offset the earnings she had or if it would make a difference.”

The VITA project is also popular among students because it has the byproduct of helping them figure out which direction to go in their major. Accounting majors have the choice to specialize in tax or audit, and since few have much experience with either as undergraduates, volunteering to help with taxes can tell them whether they like that end of the business or not.

For Meyer the answer was yes and for Tibbles it was no. Meyer said she liked the structured nature of working with taxes; shes been accepted into the masters program in tax. Tibbles said she preferred the less technical, more human-centered field of audit.

Charmaine Ma, who is coordinating the VITA program for Beta Alpha Psi this year, isnt yet ready to make a tax/audit decision, but she pointed out another thing she liked about the project: tangible results. “You can actually see the refund on the screen,” she said.

Those 343 returns completed by the end of February generated $628,472 worth of refunds for the students clients. Medlar estimates that by the end of tax season the students will have helped with more than 600 tax returns, so the refund amount is likely to double.

And that will probably lead to the UW Beta Alpha Psi chapter being honored as it has been in the past for the most service hours at its national conference.

Not a surprise when you consider that at 230 members strong, its the largest chapter in the United States.