Professors Put Student Tax-Prep Skills to the Test

Published: Apr 13, 2009
For many students, tackling their own annual tax returns is challenging enough. For UT accounting majors, it is a challenge they shared with their clients.

Yes, clients. More than 60 UT students were trained and certified this year to participate in the IRS’ Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, where they helped prepare taxes for people of modest income and those who cannot prepare their own returns. The free program helped accounting majors fulfill part of the requirements for a course on tax accounting.

"For as long as I can remember, we have recognized that service is important as part of the accounting major," said Steve Platau, a professor of accounting who helps coordinate UT student involvement with VITA."

The students completed practice manuals and study guides before taking online courses and tests in preparation for their VITA service. After completing and passing all of the required tests, they then attended a training session on the VITA process and how to work with individual tax payers. From there, it wa all in their hands as they used their tax knowledge to assist real people with real tax returns in a one-on-one setting.

As volunteers, the students helped out at one of VITA’s designated sites throughout the Tampa Bay area.

“In years past, our documented hours have exceeded 1,000 volunteer hours, and I expect a total near that number this year,” Platau said.

For Andrew Argue, a sophomore who aspires to work for a public accounting firm, volunteering with the program inspired confidence in his knowledge of the federal tax system.

“On the first day, I was semi-petrified because you’re dealing with other people’s finances, and it’s a very sensitive and important matter,” Argue said. “It’s very easy to doubt yourself when you’ve never done them before. But by the end of my service I was completing the returns in no time.”

Argue volunteered with VITA at two locations in Hillsborough County, helping complete about 25 to 30 individual tax returns. The experience, he said, put the entirety of the federal tax system into perspective.

"It has helped me see how the tax system works and where the money goes that everybody pays,” Argue said. “It’s the first time I’ve seen the redistribution of tax dollars on a real level."

Spring Phillips, a graduate student pursuing a master’s degree in accounting, helped complete about 35 to 40 returns, including some for personal businesses.

“While I learned in my tax class, I don’t think the knowledge really clicked into place until I volunteered,” Phillips said. “Since I was filing return after return, I started to understand more and was able to notice things I never would have paid attention to before. The practical experience is truly priceless.”