Students Do Good by Doing Taxes

Megan Lee

The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) Program, a national IRS-sponsored program, was initiated at Colgate University in 2002 by Assistant Professor of Economics Nicole Simpson and her former colleague, Professor Jill Tiefenthaler. This year, approximately thirty students are participating in the program, filing income taxes for low-income families.

The VITA program at Colgate, which aids families from Madison and Chenango County, was the first VITA program initiated in a New York State college. Others, such as Hamilton College and St. Lawrence University, have since followed suit. The student volunteers aid 500 families per year, averaging $2,500 in returns per client – this totals about $1,000,000 in returns a year. The services are of no cost to each client, and the students work on a volunteer basis.

Colgate’s VITA program collaborates with different organizations in various locations throughout Madison and Chenango County to offer services to as many clients as possible. These organizations are the Public Library at Hamilton, the Department of Social Services at Wampsville, the Community Action Program at Morrisville, the Cornell Cooperative Extension and the United Way at Norwich. Colgate University is also a sponsor of the program.

The organizations provide all of the advertising and publicity needed to notify families of the free services. The tax-assistance sessions are held at the buildings and offices of these organizations as well. Simpson said that the organizations provide the sites and the clients while Colgate provides the volunteers. Students are responsible for providing their own transportation to these different sites. However, “transportation has never been a problem,” Simpson said.

Because the VITA program requires volunteers to be familiar with finances and taxes, the IRS mandates an “entrance exam” for student volunteers each year they participate in the program.

“The government gives all volunteers a student guide, practice tests and a reference book for common questions they could have while preparing tax returns,” student coordinator of the VITA program senior Justine Levesanos said. According to Simpson, most students pass the exam.

Each student volunteer is required to work for at least six tax-assistance sessions each VITA year, which runs from January to April. There are seven tax sessions per week at different locations, each session running approximately three hours long.

“With student schedules constantly changing, the hardest part is to make sure that we have enough volunteers going or finding replacements last minute just because everyone is so busy,” Levesanos said.

There is an income cap for clients eligible for participation in the VITA program: a maximum of $40,000 per year for a family of four. The clients’ average annual income is $12,000 per household.

“At times it can be really hard – sometimes you will see kids your own age and they’ll be married and have kids,” student coordinator senior Jane Sheehan said. “You see the dire situations they’re in.”

The VITA program has proven rewarding for everybody involved.

“It’s been a really popular program – real effort, real impact,” Simpson said. “It’s really a gratifying experience for students.”

Student volunteers agreed with Simpson’s assessment.

“It is extremely rewarding to see how just a half hour of my time can make such a large difference in the lives of the people of Madison County,” Levesanos said. “I think the volunteers gain a lot by seeing the type of economic environment Colgate is located in and how little people can survive on. It has definitely been an eye-opening experience for me and for the rest of the volunteers.”

First-year Grace Seery added her own take on the VITA experience.

“I really enjoy it because it makes me appreciate what I have – I love seeing how appreciative people are of the program,” she said.