Montana State University

MSU accounting students complete hundreds of tax returns for students, community members

April 20, 2015 -- Anne Cantrell, MSU News Service

Accounting students from the Montana State University Jake Jabs College of Business and Entrepreneurship helped more than 463 individuals in the community complete their tax returns this year – for free. MSU photo by Sepp Jannotta.

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Accounting students from the Montana State University Jake Jabs College of Business and Entrepreneurship helped more than 463 individuals in the community complete their tax returns this year – for free.

The approximately 25 students who prepared the returns did so as participants in the national Volunteer Income Tax Assistance, or VITA, program. The program has two goals: to help people in the community by providing free tax preparation services for individuals making less than $58,000, and to provide aspiring accountants practice in their profession.

VITA is a win-win for both the student volunteers and the community members who choose to take advantage of the program, according to Anne Christensen, an MSU accounting professor who directs VITA at MSU.

“A huge benefit to the students is that they’re dealing with real clients and real issues,” Christensen said. “The community benefits by getting free tax help. And, for many of the people we work with, receiving a sizable refund because of tax provisions can make a real difference. It’s exciting to students that they can apply what they learn in the classroom to help people.”

All of the MSU accounting students who served as volunteers passed an IRS tax preparation exam, completed at least one comprehensive tax course and received specific training related to common tax issues, Christensen said. The students also had access to a variety of federal and state reference materials.

Christensen said that MSU has participated in the VITA program for more than 20 years. And, over the years, it has grown in scope and popularity. For example, when the program first began, the students did only paper returns, without tax preparation software. And, in recent years, the program at MSU expanded to offer tax preparation services to international students and employees.

Participating in VITA helps students develop skills that go beyond tax preparation, Christensen said.

“The students are also learning how to communicate effectively, developing those skills of professionalism that will serve them well in their lives,” Christensen said. “I’m very proud of our students for their dedication and their work.”

Several of the students who participated in VITA agreed with Christensen that the program offers valuable experience.

Student Kate Locke said she enjoys the opportunity to work with people.

“These are real clients, and we’re preparing real returns,” Locke said. “We’re applying classroom theory to the real world.

“Every single client is so unique,” Locke added, noting that she learns something new from each person. Locke plans to pursue accounting as a profession after graduating from MSU this spring.

Melissa Eder, a senior business student from Columbus who also participated in the VITA program this year, said that helping people file their returns – particularly those individuals who received refunds – provided her with a sense of satisfaction.

“A lot of people we worked with may be depending on a refund or trying to get a low payment,” Elder said. “It’s satisfying to know that you’re helping people. Being a college student, I understand how a $2,000 refund can impact you. That’s a good chunk of tuition and some books.”

After graduating from MSU this spring, Eder plans to work as a credit analyst.

Eder and four other MSU students also traveled to Alaska over spring break through the VITA program. There, the group prepared tax returns in several small villages. The students collectively prepared between 250-300 returns throughout the week, Eder said.

Preparing so many returns, particularly in such a short period of time, helped solidify her knowledge of the tax preparation process, Eder said. And Eder and Locke – who traveled to Alaska through the VITA program last year – both agreed that working in small, remote villages – which were accessible only by plane – was also an important experience culturally.

“While preparing the return, we were sitting there having a conversation with the client,” Eder said. “We watched villagers do a tribal dance. We stayed in the school; we rolled out our sleeping bags and slept on the floor. It was an intense week, and a great experience.”    

Contact: Audrey Capp, (406) 994-7026 or audrey.lee@montana.edu