VITA works to improve tax literacy in a new way
By Melanie Rossi
GREEN BAY – By providing free tax assistance for the local community and invaluable volunteer experience for college students, the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program (VITA) aims to improve tax literacy in a new way.
The VITA program, established by UW-Green Bay and now partnering with St. Norbert College, provides free tax preparation assistance to the local community with the help of IRS-certified college students.
According to Zhuoli Axelton, assistant professor of accounting at UW-Green Bay and the director of the program, its intended recipients are “low- and moderate-income taxpayers (i.e., taxpayers with $60,000 or less household income), the elderly, individuals with disabilities and limited English-speaking taxpayers.”
After five years of informal community assistance from the college’s faculty and students, UW-Green Bay officially founded the program in 2001.
Axelton said, “The program was established in response to a growing concern that many taxpayers in the local community did not have the financial resources to hire professional tax preparers and lacked the knowledge and skills to prepare their own tax returns. As a result, they may not claim the tax credits and deductions they were entitled to on the tax return.”
In 2020, VITA started partnering with St. Norbert College in the hopes of creating more student engagement and allowing for more local assistance.
St. Norbert College Professor Amy Vandenberg was instrumental in creating this partnership.
“In spring 2019, [she] joined UWGB VITA program once a week to observe and participate as a quality reviewer during her spring sabbatical,” Axelton said. “Based on her interactions and direct contact with the UWGB accounting students, she came away with a clear agenda to have the VITA course added to the St. Norbert accounting program.”
Now, volunteers from both colleges can meet with local taxpayers, and, depending on each taxpayer’s needs, these meetings can be either virtual or in-person.
Each meeting starts with an introduction between the volunteer and taxpayer.
“[The volunteer] may also ask the taxpayer some basic information, such as their name and social security number, to confirm their identity,” Axelton added.
Next, Axelton said, “The VITA volunteer will then ask the taxpayer to provide various tax-related documents, such as their W-2, 1099 forms and receipts for any deductible expenses. The volunteer will review the documents and ask the taxpayer questions to ensure they have all the necessary information to prepare an accurate tax return.”
With a tax preparation software, the volunteer will then “enter the taxpayer’s information and calculate their tax liability or refund for federal and state,” Axelton said.
“A second VITA volunteer, known as the Quality Reviewer, will check the return for accuracy, completeness and compliance with tax laws and regulations.”
Once everything has been reviewed and signed by both the volunteer and the taxpayer, “the returns will be E-filed for federal and state.”
By providing this support through these meetings, Axelton said, “The VITA program helps low-income taxpayers claim important tax credits to boost their income and promotes tax compliance and equity.”
In addition to helping the local community, however, the program also provides benefits to the college students who work as volunteers and who, with a month of training, receive IRS certification.
Axelton explained that the local work can provide students with valuable hands-on experience; through these meetings, they can improve their communication and problem solving—soft skills necessary for future career success.
The volunteer work also allows the students to support their local community in meaningful and important ways.
Additionally, by doing this community work, students can simultaneously learn more about tax laws and regulations.
“Students receive training from the IRS, and the knowledge they gain can be helpful for students pursuing careers in accounting, taxation, or law. IRS VITA certification is also a great resume builder,” Axelton said.
In line with these professional benefits, the students can “network with other volunteers, tax professionals, and community leaders,” Axelton added. “This networking can be valuable for building professional relationships and exploring career opportunities.”
With the VITA program’s dual benefits—those for local taxpayers and those for student volunteers—an oftentimes arduous process can become simpler, easier and, ultimately, more rewarding.
Until March, anyone interested can create an appointment and find more information at www.uwgb.edu/vita.