Students in the Cal Poly Orfalea College of Business will provide free tax help for low-income individuals every Saturday from Jan. 29 through March 12 with the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, a program supported by the Internal Revenue Service.
According to a Cal Poly press release, IRS-certified accounting seniors will perform the tax returns for families or individuals with an income of less than $49,000 annually, which will then be reviewed by local tax professionals. The program will take place on the second-floor of the Business Building from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Rodney Pereira, a business administration junior, said the Cal Poly VITA program was started in 1992 to help serve low-income individuals.
“It’s really geared toward low income individuals who aren’t too savvy with this kind of thing,” Pereira said.
Janice Carr, an accounting professor and one of the faculty advisers of the VITA program along with professors Jack Robison and Michelle Bissonnette, said the program is a class provided during the winter quarter “for accounting seniors (that) can be either an elective class or it can serve as their senior project.”
Carr said the program is sponsored by the IRS and there are many other VITA programs across the country.
“We’ve been doing it for 20 years, but the whole program has actually been in existence from the mid-1970s, so it’s well over 30, 40 years old,” Carr said.
There is also a VITA program in Santa Maria, which is headed by Cal Poly alumna Hilda Zacarias on an appointment basis where 15 to 20 Cal Poly students are “loaned” to help prepare tax returns, Carr said.
Carr additionally said the students who participate in the program must be certified because “the IRS requires that anybody who’s going to do this be sure to know their tax laws.”
Many others who volunteer for the VITA program do not have the training that Cal Poly students do, Carr said.
“A lot of people that do it around the country are just volunteers — people who are retired or something, and they want to contribute to the community,” Carr said. “They have to be trained in tax, whereas our students have had a tax class, possibly two. So, it doesn’t require as much advanced training.”
However, students still must take a “take-home type test,” Carr said.
Philip Higgins, a business administration senior participating in the program for his senior project, said the tests are essential, but time consuming, to assure that those seeking tax help will have their returns be “100 percent correct.”
“We have to do over 10 hours of online testing in order to be certified in order to work with this program,” Higgins said. “And not only do we get certified, but we are heavily supervised not only by professors, but by other CTAs (Chartered Tax Advisors) from San Luis Obispo.”
Carr said students should make sure to bring all of their W-2 forms before getting their returns prepared.
“If they receive another W-2 later, then they have to come back and have us prepare an amended tax return,” Carr said. “It’s best to wait until they receive all their tax materials before coming to VITA the first time.”
Higgins said students coming for tax help should be sure to also bring any receipts for books and tuition.
“That’s a major thing for students because … you can have that be a deduction too, so bring receipts in for that,” Higgins said.
Carr also said students should be aware of the amount of scholarships they received because they may have to pay taxes if the scholarships exceed the cost of tuition, books and supplies.
“In some cases, students who get scholarships, if the scholarships are greater than the amount of their tuition and their books, (are) going to have to include that extra scholarship above the tuition and books as income,” Carr said. “And a lot of students don’t realize that.”
Carr said individuals should remember to bring copies of last year’s tax return in order to provide a better feel for how the tax return had been previously handled, though many do not bring their past year’s return.
“For some reason, people who don’t know taxes don’t remember to bring it, or a lot of people don’t keep a copy, which is absolutely a really bad mistake,” Carr said. “Everybody should keep a copy of their tax return for at least three years. And you’d be surprised how many people don’t make a copy, they just mail the one we give them if we’re not e-filing. So, it’s definitely something they need to get educated about.”
Higgins said students should also consult their parents with tax questions before attending the VITA program because it can speed up the process. He also suggested for students to arrive early because the program is on a first-come, first-serve basis.
“Even though we open up our doors at 10 or so in the morning, the tip is get in line at around nine o’clock because there’s already going to be people from the community lining up at that time,” Higgins said.
For the students preparing tax returns, Carr said the VITA program is beneficial by providing real world experience and a more secure sense of their capabilities.
“They go into this a little intimidated because they’re going to be preparing real life returns for people, but what they find out almost immediately is how much they know, and they realize their self-confidence,” Carr said. “It really boosts their self-confidence about their knowledge and their ability. And then the people who come are generally real friendly and they look to us for help, so that’s kind of a good feeling.”
Higgins said he is more excited than intimidated to help out the community.
“All of my classmates and I are very thrilled to be able to work with the community, especially other accounting professionals from San Luis Obispo,” Higgins said. “We’re excited to be helping out Cal Poly, and hopefully we get students as much money back as we possibly can.”