Students help community with Tax Assistance Program
Abigail Piper | Wednesday, April 11, 2018
April 17 may not mean much to most undergraduate students, but some of these students have taken it upon themselves to participate in tax season via the Vivian Harrington Gray Tax Assistance Program (TAP), which has helped local, low-income South Bend and Mishawaka community members fill out their federal and state tax returns since 1972, when professor Ken Milani started the program.
Colleen Creighton, associate teaching professor of accountancy and the program coordinator for TAP, became a professor and joined TAP in 2016. Creighton said participating in TAP has been a “tremendous learning experience” for her and “enlightening” for the students who volunteer.
“It is very eye-opening for a lot of people, figuring out how privileged we may be,” she said. “I had one student tell me that they were looking at a tax return for a family of four, and they made just a little bit more than they made over their summer internship.”
Steffen Timmer, TAP’s student program leader, said he originally joined TAP because of the additional credits one can earn from taking the class, as students need 150 credits for the Certified Public Accountant exam. Still, he said being a part of TAP during junior and senior years has been a rewarding experience.
“I like being able to talk to people and get to know them, help them with their problems and issues, even if it’s something as little as tax returns.” Timmer said. “It can make a big difference for these people that the program serves, because the other options like H&R Block or firms like that might charge 200 bucks or something for doing a tax return, and when your income’s not that high, that can make a big difference.”
In the community program, undergraduate juniors and seniors studying accounting can take TAP as a two-credit pass/fail course after they have taken Federal Taxation. First they learn the tax filing process, then from Feb. 13 to April 14 they periodically work on location in the South Bend and Mishawaka area filing taxes.
“Initially I think it’s to get the practical experience, but I think they really enjoy providing help,” Creighton said. “And most people are just so anxious for the help … the idea that someone is there to help lessen that burden is very helpful and they’re all very, very grateful.”
Creighton said the “real live client” experience is an invaluable lesson that’s difficult to learn in the classroom.
Timmer said he found that working with real-life clients helped him apply classroom concepts to the real world situations.
“You actually work with clients, so when you start working you have some experience of how to communicate with people and help them out,” Timmer said. “Sitting in your accounting classes you’re not getting a lot of actual interaction with people like who you’re going to be working for in the future.”
This year, the community TAP program made the shift to electronic filing. Not only did this increase efficiency, but it also benefits the clients, who get their refunds anywhere from four to six weeks sooner.
“Particularly for the community that we’re dealing with, this tax refund has a tremendous impact, so the ability to shorten that and get them their money much faster has been met with a great deal of enthusiasm,” Creighton said.
Besides the community program, TAP also includes an international program where students in Mendoza’s Master of Science in Accountancy program help international students, scholars and faculty with their taxes.
“Most Americans have difficulty understanding their taxes, then you get somebody who’s only here for a short period of time,” Creighton. “So the International Program helps them with any US filing requirements.”
Last year, the community program did 834 returns and 1,885 returns total combined with the international program’s returns. This year, Creighton said the program is on track to fill out at least as many returns as they did last year.
“Tax returns, it’s nothing extremely challenging for us as accounting students at Notre Dame, but it’s stuff people are confused about,” Timmer said. “People don’t know tax laws, like an accounting major would, so it’s good to use what we know to help people with that.”