As Tax Day Nears, Accounting Students Offer Free Tax Prep to Pinellas County Residents

Dr. Fellows (standing) helps two VITA students prepare taxes for a Pinellas County resident (left).

(April 1, 2019) – For the past twelve years, accounting students at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg have helped individuals and families navigate the complexities of filing taxes while boosting their resume through the IRS VITA program.

Short for Volunteer Income Tax Assistance, VITA provides students with relevant training in tax preparation services. In return, the USFSP students provide free income tax preparation and assistance to low- and middle-income families in Pinellas County, generating around $1 million in tax credit refunds each year.

Participating in VITA is a great way for students to develop their technical accounting skills while gaining invaluable experience and earning college credit, according to James Fellows, Professor of Accounting and VITA program supervisor.

“Unlike working at a Certified Public Accountant firm, where you rarely see a client until you get up to a managerial level, VITA lets students directly interview taxpayers and work with them while preparing their tax returns,” Fellows said. “They work with lower- and middle-income families, small independent contracts and individuals with small businesses.”

At the start of the semester, students in the VITA program complete online certification exams and in-person training administered by the IRS. After the initial training, the students work with Fellows and other staff from the Kate Tiedemann College of Business who assign the students to various VITA sites throughout Pinellas County.

Each student in the program is required to complete 100 volunteer hours during the semester. However, some students have been motivated to volunteer as many as 120 hours and others have even returned after earning their CPA to continue working as community volunteers.

For Nancy Hoang, a CPA who graduated and completed the VITA program in 2018, the experience was so fulfilling that she has returned to volunteer in subsequent semesters.

“VITA is very rewarding personally because I’m able to help people who don’t understand the tax code, have limited English or have a disability,” Hoang said. “Professionally, I’ve been able to pull different parts of my education together and apply it in real-life situations. I now work for a major accounting firm and prepare individual taxes. I’ve been able to incorporate what I learned at work into the VITA program and vice versa.”

Boosting one’s resume is often top-of-mind for students preparing to enter the job market, but Fellows thinks the interpersonal relationships developed through the program offer students the biggest return on their investment.

“Being able to immediately apply what they’ve learned in the classroom and develop interpersonal skills through working directly with taxpayers — those are two big benefits,” he said.

Dakotah Flint agrees. The junior accounting major is one of the six USFSP students in the Spring 2019 VITA class. Participating in the program has helped him translate what he learned in class into benefiting the community.

“I was looking at doing some volunteering,” he said. “With VITA, I get to help people out and learn how laws are applied in real-world situations. In tax class, we only really see information on the computer and through assignments. But here I get to work with real people and tax returns.”

In previous years, tax credit refunds generated by VITA students have topped $1.3 million. Although the Spring 2019 class is smaller than previous years, Fellows predicts that the tax credit refunds will be more than $1 million for Pinellas County residents.

Beyond refunds, the accounting students’ involvement in this program saves residents from not having to pay professional tax preparers. That number is harder to determine, but Fellows made a conservative estimate that the roughly 1,000 returns the VITA students prepared in Spring 2018 saved Pinellas County residents around $100,000 dollars in fees; providing a significant amount of savings to the community.