Student volunteers eliminate the costs of filing income taxes
The College of Business at North Dakota State University will be filing income taxes for community members for free this tax season. The college is a part of the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program or VITA, a program through the Internal Revenue Service. The NDSU VITA program has been active for the last 25 years.
James Clifton is an Assistant Professor of Accounting Practice at NDSU. Clifton has been the coordinator of the VITA program at NDSU for 20 years.
“[VITA] is a program sponsored by the IRS,” Clifton said. “We are responsible for the IRS to try to do things right. The IRS is very concerned that we do it right.”
The VITA program is run completely by student volunteers. Volunteers receive nine hours of training over three training sessions to teach them how to file income taxes.
“We have to go through certifications to make sure we understand the do’s and don’ts,” Clifton said. “The training program has gotten to be more extensive. The training is not just what are the tax rules and laws and how do we make decisions. It’s about how this stuff is entered into the software. We do not guess; you don’t want to guess on someone’s tax returns.”
This year, there are 34 student volunteers. According to Clifton, the number of volunteers has stayed constant during his time coordinating the program.
“Students are getting a huge benefit learning how to prepare a tax return and use tax software,” Clifton said. “Whether they go into the world of taxation for a living or not. I can tell you right now if they want to prepare their own tax return, they will be more than capable of doing it. It’s a really good life skill for them to have.”
“We do not guess; you don’t want to guess on someone’s tax returns.”Assistant Professor of Accounting Practice, James Clifton
Most of the students volunteering with VITA are a part of Clifton’s classes. However, the program is open to all students regardless of their major. This year, Clifton even has a freshman volunteering with him.
“It’s a blast when I get volunteers that aren’t from my class,” Clifton said. “My attitude is our system is done well enough that I can train you in well. In the beginning, you may be uncomfortable, as we all are with any new thing. I can take anybody and train them with our system and they will be comfortable by the end.”
Students often work in pairs filing returns. This allows students to work out problems together.
“The goal is to support all the volunteers and make sure they understand you’re not on your own,” Clifton said.
Last year, student volunteers filed 100 tax returns for community members. The goal for Clifton this year is to file at least 140 returns. During the first session on Feb. 25, the volunteers filed 26 returns.
“We have stepped up the advertising this year,” Clifton said. “We have tried to reach out so more people are aware of what’s happening. We’re available so come on in.”
Clifton stressed the importance of confidentiality during sessions. According to Clifton, a major concern for clients is identity theft. To avoid the chance of identity theft all extra documents, regardless of the information, it’s shredded and disposed of professionally.
“We need to be very conscious of other people’s information,” Clifton said.
Recently, the VITA program at the University of Jamestown was disbanded. Clifton has since received calls from community members in that area about coming to Fargo to file their taxes.
“There is certainly a need for this service,” Clifton said. “They are going to drive 180 miles round trip in North Dakota winters to get their taxes done. They trust us to do their returns correctly and the cost savings are so important for them.”
Clifton’s favorite part of coordinating the program is doing the returns of community members in need.
“I believe that people with disabilities and those from low-income situations should get their taxes done for free,” Clifton said. “I feel the best when I’m able to prepare a return for those people. Seeing them come back for the second and third time I know that we’re doing a good thing here.”
Anyone wanting to file a return must have a photo ID and their social security card. They will also need wage and earning statements, tuition statements, last year’s tax returns and interest and dividend statements if applicable.
VITA sessions will be from 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. every Tuesday from March 3 through April 7. Sessions will be held in the lower level of the NDSU Library. There will not be a session held on March 17 during spring break.