Several authors have discussed the benefits of “service learning” in the accounting curriculum and, more specifically, the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program. This is described as a means of strengthening the accounting curriculum by engaging students in critical analysis and problem solving; see Still and Clayton, “Utilizing Service-Learning in Accounting Programs,” 19 Issues in Acct’g Ed. 478 (November 2004). Service learning assignments have been proposed as a means of accomplishing the goals of the 1999 AICPA Core Competency Framework; see Gujarathi and McQuade, “Service Learning: Extending the Curriculum,” 72 The CPA Journal 68 (February 2002). The VITA program is often mentioned in these discussions and has been proposed as a way to accomplish the active-learning objectives of Accounting Education Change Commission Position Statement No. 1; see Quinn et al., “Revitalizing VITA to Address AECC Position Statement No. 1 Objectives,” 13 J. of Acct’g Ed. 479 (1995). The development of technical knowledge and of communication, team and computer skills has been attributed to this clinical tax program; see Porter and Bradwick, “‘School-to-Work’ Preparedness: Integrating Tax Clinics into the Business Curriculum,” 27 TTA 505 (August 1996). The community service aspect of VITA provides an opportunity for accounting students to make a difference in their local communities; see Shafer and Park, “Giving Back: Pro Bono Accounting Services,” 188 JOA 95 (November 1999).
Some have claimed that VITA’s pedagogical merits are too significant for it to be offered only as a voluntary extracurricular activity; see Dunlevy and Sherman, “VITA: A Means to Compete for the Future,” 70 PA CPA Journal 17 (Winter 2000). Others have compared university-sponsored VITA programs on the basis of whether academic credit was offered and found that resource issues were of more concern to the success of a VITA program; see Strupeck and Whitten, “Accounting Service-Learning Experiences and the IRS Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Programme: A Teaching Note,” 13 Acct’g Ed. 110 (March 2004). While most authors have been generally positive toward the program’s educational and community benefits, one important potential problem has been identified: inadequate training and certification of volunteers has resulted in significant numbers of incorrectly prepared tax returns for taxpayers using the service; see Banoff and Lipton, “VITA Program Scores a Zero,” 101 J. Tax’n 320 (November 2004).
The role played by VITA in the modern accounting curriculum remains a relevant issue. According to a 2004 American Taxation Association (ATA) survey, ATA members have a strong commitment to the VITA program; see Bauman et al., “Pro-Bono Tax Services: The Role of Tax Academics and Students,” 36 TTA 500 (August 2005). The 79 faculty members who responded to the survey reported that they completed Federal and state tax returns for nearly 30,000 taxpayers; see ATA, “Pro-Bono Tax Services Taskforce—March 5, 2005, Executive Summary of Survey Results,” available at http://aaahq.org/ata/public-interest/reports/ATA-Pro-Bono-SurveyReport-March2005.pdf. About half the faculty conducted their pro-bono work on campus, while the others worked off campus. A majority of the respondents indicated that they have a long-term commitment to VITA: 35% were involved for more than 10 years, and an additional 25% were involved over five years. But the survey also indicated that slightly less than 40% of participating students at university-sponsored VITA sites received course credit for their involvement. Further, only 35% of the faculty involved indicated that they received recognition or support from their universities for their efforts. The primary reason offered by faculty for not offering pro-bono tax services was the lack of institutional recognition and support for this time-intensive activity; see id. at p. 2.
Any discussion of the VITA program’s educational role must occur in the context of the current tax curriculum. A joint AICPA-ATA task force conducted a 2003 survey on the state of the tax curriculum; see Kern and Dennis-Escoffier, “Current Status of the Tax Curriculum in Accounting,” 35 TTA 712 (November 2004). That survey found that while many undergraduate accounting programs offered electives, only 11.7% required two undergraduate tax courses. On average, 57.15% of accounting graduates took only one undergraduate tax course. Generally, they found that the first tax class emphasized property transactions and individual income taxation. Programs with only a single tax class covered individuals, property transactions and sometimes business entities. The survey found that the lecture method was the predominant teaching method used. The authors concluded that it was time to reconsider the tax curriculum in accounting programs.
The VITA program is a potential piece of the tax curriculum and, thus, a potential part of a university’s accounting curriculum. Part I of this column describes the program in sufficient detail to inform those who make or influence curricular decisions on the issues relevant to offering such a program. It identifies two primary methods of motivating student involvement in the program and the advantages and disadvantages of each. It compares IRS goals and objectives with those of accounting faculty and describes the educational benefits and costs associated with sponsoring a VITA site. Part II of this column, in the November 2007 issue, will (1) address the relationships among VITA, the Modern Tax Curriculum (MTC) and the 150-hour requirement and (2) identify several advantages of offering the VITA program as an elective accounting course and the major challenge to that approach.
The VITA Program
Since 1969, the Service has sponsored the Volunteer Return Preparation Program, offering free tax preparation services to taxpayers with relatively low incomes; see IRS Pub. 1084, IRS Volunteer Coordinator’s Handbook, p. 1-5. This program is commonly referred to as the VITA program. The Service partners with national and local organizations whose members or constituents are interested in providing tax compliance services to taxpayers who otherwise cannot afford them. VITA is administered by the Stakeholder, Partnerships, Education and Communication (SPEC) office, which is part of the IRS Wage and Investment Division. Organizations that sponsor VITA sites are assisted by SPEC territory managers; the actual support is normally provided by tax specialists in the SPEC area offices. Through these offices, the Service provides training materials, technical assistance, tax software, forms, publications and some limited publicity for all VITA sites. (For a discussion of SPEC, see Bauman et al., supra.)
Sponsors desiring to start VITA sites can request applications for site identification numbers (SIDNs) and electronic filing identification numbers (EFINs) from local SPEC offices and can also obtain training materials, name badges, site identification posters, tax return envelopes and other site supplies. SPEC staff members work directly with the site coordinators, the primary contacts for the sponsoring organizations. The coordinators are responsible for establishing and operating the sponsors’ VITA sites. The IRS developed the IRS Volunteer Coordinator’s Handbook to guide the site coordinators in their duties. It provides an overview of the program and those policies designed to ensure that quality services are provided to taxpayers in a nondiscriminatory manner. It covers site selection, recruiting, training, interviewing, tax return reviewing, electronic filing and marketing. It describes the various roles that volunteers can perform and provides a suggested timeline of activities for site coordinators.
Timeline: The recommended timeline of activities is not specific to universities, but it generally covers the fall and spring semesters of an academic year; see IRS Pub. 1084, p. 1-11. The Service envisions that the sponsor of a new VITA site will have its site coordinator apply for its SIDN and EFIN from June through September. Thus, the VITA and academic years start at roughly the same time. While the IRS encourages electronic filing (e-filing) at VITA sites, site coordinators are allowed to choose. Some coordinators may prefer to use e-filing because it simulates today’s tax practice. Other coordinators may want to teach volunteers manual tax preparation because of its educational value and to avoid e-filing’s complications. If the coordinator chooses the latter approach, an EFIN application is not needed. If the site intends to offer e-filing, an EFIN is required; IRS Pub. 3189, Volunteer e-file Administrator’s Guide, should be ordered.
Volunteer recruitment: Recruitment of volunteers should begin during the first few months of a new semester. Sponsoring a VITA program is not possible without volunteers; this critical step is discussed below. Once an estimate of the total number of volunteers is established, IRS training materials may be ordered.
Training materials: Currently, the Service provides both online training materials and printed publications. The online training modules are found at the “Link and Learn” section of the IRS website. They may be used for self-study by individual volunteers or by an organized group of volunteers in a computer lab setting; see, e.g., IRS, “Link & Learn Taxes,” 2006, available at www.irs.gov/app/vita/index.jsp. The Service has developed modules it labels as basic, intermediate, advanced, refresher and military/international. When a volunteer passes an examination, the results are electronically sent to the IRS and may be printed, signed and given to the site coordinator. All volunteers who prepare returns must pass the basic module. They are directed to prepare only those returns for which they have been certified.
If the site coordinator prefers training with publications, he or she may order training package kits that include IRS Pub. 678, Volunteer Student Guide, IRS Pub. 678-W, VITA/TCE Comprehensive Problems and Practice Exercises and the certification examination. The coordinator should also order IRS Pub. 1155, VITA/TCE Facilitator’s Guide, for each instructor who will teach the VITA training sessions. This guide sets out a class syllabus for each of the modules and provides other pedagogical help. Each module is organized into a 2- or 3- day schedule of classroom instruction. The Service recommends allowing 40 hours for technical training and four to eight hours for software training and certification; see IRS Pub. 1084, p. 1-21.
It may be difficult for a site coordinator to know in October exactly how many training packages will be needed during the following tax season. At a minimum, the coordinator should order training materials equal to the number of computers available for training and tax preparation. If the program attracts more students than expected, multiple training sessions can be scheduled; the training materials can be distributed and collected at the end of each session. These same materials can later be distributed to volunteers for use as reference materials during each VITA session.
Location designation: The IRS timeline indicates that by October, a location for training and the actual site location should be identified. At a university, a computer lab with Internet access works well for training. If portable computers are intended for use in training and tax preparation, a room with wireless Internet access is preferable. Internet access is needed for downloading software updates and doing online tax research. If a university classroom or computer lab is selected as a site, it should be reserved according to procedures at that specific institution. At some institutions, scheduling may have to occur much earlier than October. Also in October, training dates for volunteers should be scheduled, and instructors should be identified to teach the training sessions. If several faculty members are participating in the program, they should allocate the curriculum and coordinate their efforts.
Ordering materials: By November, site materials should be ordered, based on an estimate of the number of taxpayers to be served during tax season. This can be calculated using the number of expected volunteers and the number of hours they indicate they will work in the program. Usually around the same time, site coordinators are invited to an IRS leader’s workshop to receive training on any procedural changes to the program. The Service holds these training sessions in various cities in each state. According to the IRS timeline, volunteer training and certification should be done in November and December and completed by early January. In December, publicity efforts should begin; organizational meetings should be held to prepare volunteers for opening the site in early February. Posters advertising the site can be placed around campus; public service announcements can be drafted.
Reporting: Once the site opens (and until it closes in April), Form 13206, Volunteer Assistance Summary Report, should be filed each month, listing the volunteers’ names, their roles and their certification dates. By March, a complete list of all volunteers should be submitted to the SPEC office, so that letters of appreciation and certificates of participation can be completed. Each certificate contains the volunteer’s name and year of participation. The Service may also provide inexpensive gifts along with certificates for the volunteers. In late April, the site should be closed, and all Forms 8453, U.S. Individual Income Tax Declaration for an IRS e-file Return, should be submitted to the IRS Submission Processing Campus. Also in late April, a ceremony recognizing the volunteers should be scheduled for them to receive recognition certificates. In May, the site coordinator should provide feedback to the SPEC territory manager’s office as to any problems that occurred, so that they can be resolved before the next tax season.
VITA program structure determines the importance of recruitment and how it is approached. Some universities offer VITA as a community activity open to all; see Dunlevy and Sherman, supra, at p. 2. Other universities offer it as a service activity operated by student organizations such as Beta Alpha Psi; see Riehl, “University of Iowa Students Offer Free Tax Help,” Knight Ridder Tribune Business News (3/5/05), p. 1. Some make program participation a requirement of a specific course in Federal income taxation; see Strupeck and Whitten, supra, at p. 107. Still others choose not to be VITA sites at all and create their own volunteer tax compliance organizations; see Gold and Schenk, “IRS Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program,” 50 CPA Journal 7 (July 1980).
The true-volunteer program: These different approaches can be categorized as either true-volunteer programs or course-required programs. As used here, “true-volunteer programs” means service programs in which the volunteers are free to decide whether to participate. One advantage of this type of program is that participation is motivated by civic responsibility and the desire to learn. These volunteers will have a very positive attitude. Student volunteers will typically be excited about participating in their first community service activity as accounting professionals. Another advantage is that the local community can provide a broad pool of potential volunteers of varying experience levels. In this way, more experienced individuals will be available to assist those less experienced.
One challenge with a true-volunteer program is that it may be difficult to recruit and train a sufficient number of volunteers. Even though the entire community is a source of recruits, it may be difficult to find individuals with sufficient time and inclination to participate. While many people may be willing to pitch in for a one-day community-service event, fewer are willing to work over multiple weeks. Another challenge is that the volunteers are not under any real compunction to show up should a scheduling conflict arise. Volunteers who are employed have unexpected business trips and the expected busy season; students have projects, examinations, winter recess and spring break. If volunteers do not show up to work, the site coordinator may have insufficient staffing for any given session. Ultimately, taxpayers will have longer waits or will not be able to get their returns prepared. Further, the program’s primary focus is on community service, not on educating accounting students. Volunteers may not be predominantly accounting students, but could be other members of the local community.
Course-required programs: The course-required programs are those in which student volunteers receive some type of academic incentive for VITA participation in a required course in their accounting curriculum. In some programs, participation may be an explicit assignment in a specific tax or accounting course. Alternatively, VITA participation may be encouraged by bonus points or some other reward. The primary advantage of this approach is that it creates a reliable supply of program “volunteers.” It targets accounting students to receive the program’s educational benefits.
A disadvantage is that the learning experience must necessarily be brief. When VITA participation is but one of several course objectives, only limited student time can be assigned to VITA. Another disadvantage is that some student volunteers may not bring much enthusiasm to the program, because they are compelled to participate. Similarly, since students are not participating because they want to provide service to their community, they may not develop any sense of civic involvement from the experience.
IRS and Educational Objectives
The IRS offers the VITA program to accomplish certain tax administration and policy objectives. It supports the program as part of its efforts to educate and assist the public with return filing; see IRS Pub. 1084. The Service intends that VITA volunteers will provide accurate and confidential services to moderate-to-low-income taxpayers; serving this segment of the public justifies the government’s expenditures for the program. From the government’s point of view, the greater the number of qualifying taxpayers served, the better; the more trained and experienced the VITA volunteers, the better the quality of work. The program is also meant to help low-income taxpayers improve their financial positions by taking advantage of tax credits and other incentives. Since these taxpayers may not have easy access to transportation, offering VITA sites at convenient times and locations is important to the program’s overall success. An administrative goal is to encourage individuals to e-file their Federal income tax returns. The IRS encourages site coordinators to use e-filing by making Service-provided tax software available to sites that prepare at least 35 electronic returns.
The primary objective for accounting educators is to teach accounting students technical knowledge and concepts, while helping them to develop skills relevant to their future careers. As a result of accounting reforms, such as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, technical skills are clearly important for accountants; see Marshall and Heffes, “Trends Affecting Next Generation of Accountants,” 21 Financial Executive 8 (September 2005). However, for some years now, educators have been told that accounting students should not receive a narrow silo of technical training, but a broad education that prepares them to make general business decisions using technology in a team environment; see Albrecht and Sack, Accounting Education: Charting the Course through a Perilous Future (American Accounting Association, 2000), vol. 16, p. 50. Interpersonal abilities and communication, technology and problem-solving skills are recognized as very important for accountants; see Messmer, “Next Generation Accountant,” 46 Nat’l Pub. Acc’t 20 (April 2001).
In addition to these skills, management, marketing and
operational expertise is crucial; see Williams, “Are You a
Next-Generation Accountant?” 83 Strategic Finance 17
(July 2001). Because of several recent accounting scandals,
pressure is building for additional ethical training in the
accounting curriculum; see, e.g., Nat’l Ass’n of State Bds. of
Acct’cy, Rules 5-1 and 5-2 Exposure Draft, 2005, available at www.nasba.org/nasbaweb/
NASBAWeb.nsf/PS/264D55C613B9747D862571B900755C7F/$file/UAA%20Education%20Rules%20Exposure%20Draft.pdf. Research skills have been found to be sufficiently important that simulations requiring basic research skills have been added to the CPA examination (www.cpa-exam.org).
Educational Benefits and Costs
In an educational environment that stresses the importance of accounting knowledge and skill building, a VITA service-learning experience can be an important tool in accomplishing these goals. Faculty members coordinating a VITA site must use various skills and abilities to offer the program to the public, including planning, organizing, marketing, teaching, supervising, analyzing, problem-solving and communicating. Coordinators must acquire resources, do publicity and marketing, install software, maintain quality control, protect taxpayer confidentiality and recruit, train and supervise staff. Further, participating in a VITA program requires interpersonal skills, professionalism, technical tax knowledge, technology skills, ethics and, possibly, a sense of civic responsibility. The knowledge and skills required of student volunteers depends on how much responsibility they are given. Preparing tax returns requires, at a minimum, knowledge of Federal and state income taxes and of computers, printers, tax software and the Internet.
Benefits: The program may, however, be designed to do much more for student volunteers. Operating a VITA site at a university can provide a clinical experience for both students and faculty. Depending on how the educational experience is structured, a VITA program can simulate operating a tax compliance business (albeit a nonprofit one). While the IRS places most of the site’s responsibilities on the coordinator, many of those duties could be performed by student volunteers after appropriate training and with proper supervision; see Quinn et al. To the extent the university-sponsored VITA site is operated in a way that broadens student participation, students will develop and practice a wide array of skills important to accounting graduates.
Costs: The benefits do not, however, come without associated costs. To the extent that even part of the VITA training takes place in a Federal tax course, other content coverage will have to be omitted. The faculty coordinator must be willing to devote substantial time to training and supervising the VITA student volunteers. E-filing may result in returns having to be corrected and resubmitted by the faculty coordinator. Secretarial staff time may be needed to schedule taxpayer appointments. There will be printing and computer costs. While volunteers generally receive immunity from negligence under the Volunteer Protection Act of 1997, it is always possible that some litigation might result from the operation of a VITA program. If not managed carefully, a VITA program could generate ill will instead of goodwill. While taxpayers are typically grateful for free tax assistance, it is possible that some may become unhappy with their taxes owed or the time it took volunteers to complete their returns.
Part II of this column, in the November 2007 issue, will address integrating VITA into the accounting program.
Prof. Nellen is a former member of the AICPA Tax Division’s Tax Executive Committee and a current member of the Individual Income Tax Technical Resource Panel. For more information about this column, contact Prof. Nellen at email@example.com, Prof. Long at firstname.lastname@example.org or Prof. Kocakulah at email@example.com.