On a recent Thursday night in a computer lab at McDaniel College in Westminster, local clients were getting their tax returns done a few weeks ahead of the April 15 deadline.
But this was no accounting firm, this was the college’s free Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) Program in which students, who spend three Saturdays learning how to file simple tax returns, help low-income individuals from the surrounding area file their taxes.
“The clients are people who need free tax help,” said Susan Milstein, professor of accounting at McDaniel who brought the program to the school and has been running it for about 24 years. “That was the whole thing for me, people really didn’t have enough money to begin with and then they had to put out money to do their tax return.”
Milstein, who is also an accountant in private practice, has since helped bring the program to Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg and Frostburg State University and presented to various organizations, including the Maryland Association of Certified Public Accountants, to get them interested in the program. Some organizations in Westminster have also picked it up.
“I just felt like it was a win-win for everybody, and thank goodness life has been good to me and I could give back to those who really need help,” she said. “It just worked out beautifully.”
Generally, clients qualify if they make $35,000 or less as a single person or if they are a married couple or a head of the household who makes $50,000 or less. Those requirements can be adjusted for a client’s circumstances, Milstein said, provided they still present the need for help.
Each year, McDaniel’s VITA program churns out about 200 tax returns. More than 30 student volunteers see clients on Tuesday and Thursday evenings and Saturday afternoons during tax season.
Andrew Roberts, this year’s VITA student coordinator, started his freshman year. The junior economy, business and accounting major wants to be an accountant after graduating.
“I was looking for something that would give me a tangible skill,” he said. “It’s been one of my favorite parts of being a student at McDaniel.”
On that Thursday night, freshman Denis Montero worked on a client’s tax return with junior Ellen Archibald.
“It’s like a puzzle, and I really like puzzles, trying to figure it out,” Archibald said.
And the clients come back year after year, some working with the same students.
Woodbine resident Joan Knight came back for the third year after finding the students helpful and friendly.
“It’s a lot of help,” she said. “You don’t get paid a lot of money in housekeeping.”
Fourth-year client Mark Fino of McSherrystown, Pa., said he went to a major tax firm prior to the VITA program and was charged around $120.
“They do an excellent job, and the best thing is I get a refund every time,” Fino said.
In addition to getting credit for every 37 hours they volunteer, VITA is a major resume booster for students, Milstein said. The college has an extensive network of alumni in top positions at accounting firms, and in getting jobs and internships, having VITA experience on the resume sets students apart from other candidates.
“I see a lot of personal growth,” said Barbara Rowell, associate professor of business administration. “A lot of these [students] have worked, but they’ve done lawn work or house work or fast food. It should make them more marketable.”
Since Milstein is retiring from McDaniel after this semester, Rowell and Kerry Duvall, assistant professor of business administration, will be taking over the VITA program. Rowell will also be running interview day, where 40 companies interview business students for jobs and internships.