Montana State University

MSU accounting students offer free tax help

March 6, 2007 -- By Anne Pettinger, MSU News Service

A student in the MSU accounting program volunteers at a MSU VITA clinic. Dennis Schmidt, co-director of the program, expects more than 400 students and community members to use the service this year. MSU file photo by Erin Raley.   High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
BOZEMAN - Though it's late in the day, the tables, stairs and hallway outside room 302 in Reid Hall on the Montana State University campus are packed, full of students chatting on cell phones, filling out forms and listening to music.

About 40 people have gathered, waiting to get their tax returns prepared.

For the waiting students, the best part is that they're not paying for the service. Instead it's free, courtesy of senior and graduate accounting students at MSU.

Thirty years ago, MSU accounting majors started preparing returns for students and community members through the national Volunteer Income Tax Assistance, or VITA, program.

The program has two goals: to provide free tax preparation services for people making less than $40,000 while giving aspiring accountants practice in their profession. Last year, the MSU VITA program helped prepare federal and state tax returns for nearly 400 individuals. This year, the professors who organize the program expect that number to increase.

"We predict we'll do about 400 to 450 returns this year," said Dennis Schmidt, an accounting professor who co-directs MSU's VITA program with professor Anne Christensen. "The program never gets smaller. It just grows."

The program is good for several reasons, Schmidt added.

"Most of our clients can't afford to go out and spend a couple hundred dollars (on tax preparation)," Schmidt said. "It's a good service, because we give it for free and our students are pretty well qualified."

For the students who prepare and review the tax returns, the experiential learning opportunity is valuable, Schmidt said. "It allows (students) to perform community service and to apply what they are learning in theory to practice."

"It's a good opportunity to gain real-world experience dealing with taxes," agreed Greg Astle, one of 39 students participating in the program this year.

The hands-on experience not only looks good on a resume but also makes requirements like the certified public accountant test easier to pass, said Astle, a graduate student in professional accounting from Kalispell who also earned an undergraduate degree in accounting at MSU.

Though he'd eventually like to be an auditor, the experience preparing taxes will be an asset to Astle in a job he will begin after graduation at Moss Adams, an accounting firm in Portland, Ore.

The training Astle and the other students, who are all accounting majors, receive before working on tax returns is extensive. They must have taken at least one 400-level tax course to be considered for the program, and during the semester they participate in VITA they receive credit for their work through enrolling in a tax practicum course.

Students also participate in an additional seven training sessions at the beginning of the semester.

"In those training sessions, we review key issues and tax law," said Schmidt, who estimates the sessions add about 12 hours of training. "We train the students on software and in Montana tax law. Then we have another training session on international returns."

The students must then pass a test, which evaluates their knowledge of different sorts of tax returns, such as those for single taxpayers and married taxpayers.

Once the training is finished, the returns can take anywhere from 15 minutes to three hours to complete, Astle estimated.

Doing the return is methodical, he added.

"I just move down the tax return," he said. "First I enter any income items, then any deduction items and, finally, information that might qualify our clients for credits."

After a student prepares a tax return, another student reviews it. Schmidt and Christensen are also available throughout the session to answer questions, and they will review complicated returns themselves.

The time the professors dedicate to MSU VITA program is considerable; now in his second year co-directing the MSU program, Schmidt estimated that he has spent hundreds of hours training students, answering questions during the sessions and managing program logistics.

For people who waver between preparing their own taxes and having them prepared through the VITA program, Astle offers an argument on behalf of VITA.

Often times you can miss a credit you might be eligible for if you're doing your taxes at home," he said. "This can save you money."

For Andrea Katz, a graduate student in math who has used the MSU VITA program for the last two years, the security the program provides is worth the effort it takes to go to the session.

"I've never done taxes before," Katz said. "It's really just to be safe."

Remaining tax preparation sessions through the VITA program at MSU will be held from 5:30 to 7 p.m. in room 302 of Reid Hall on March 20, 22, 27, 29, and April 3.

Individuals interested in using the service should bring their 2006 tax packages, W-2 forms, interest statements, 2005 tax returns, if available, and other tax documents. International students should also bring their passports. No appointment is necessary.

Dennis Schmidt (406) 994-2653