A simple classroom on the south side of the University of Delaware campus, not far from UDairy, is where the magic happens. The magic, in this case, is performed with the following props: A portable scanner, a printer, a few laptops and tax preparation software.
It’s here in the Professional and Continuing Studies building where University of Delaware students volunteer free tax preparation services each week, starting early in the year and running until April’s tax deadline. The service is a partnership between the Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics and local nonprofit Nehemiah Gateway Community Development Corporation, which aims to improve the financial well-being of people with low to moderate incomes through various services.
For those making up to $60,000 in household income, the free tax service offers a helping hand. These are people from all walks of life, who can’t necessarily afford $400-$500 for an accountant, said Stacey Hunter Withers, tax campaign director for Nehemiah Gateway CDC.
UD students have been helping with Nehemiah Gateway CDC’s program for some time, according to Withers.
Student volunteers from area universities are a big boon to the tax service. Volunteers make up about 80 percent of the program, so it can’t function without them, Withers said.
“The students are invaluable to us,” she said.
The campus location opened in 2019, said Brian Greenstein, an associate professor of accounting at Lerner, but after the pandemic and the shutdowns that followed, students had to give tax help remotely. This year, the campus location has reopened in person.
That in-person experience is better for the volunteers, Withers said, and while the service does still offer some virtual help, that approach is limited.
The volunteers are doing more than just saving people time.
The horrors of tax season are familiar to anyone who has an income, which is to say almost every adult in the country, and quite a few hapless teenagers unwise enough to have earned excessive spending money over the summer. The tax code has grown to thousands of pages, full of so many loopholes, exceptions, qualifications and explanations that filling out even a “simple” return can be irritating and make the uninitiated break out in a cold sweat.
Those making a comfortable income, can usually hand off their return to a professional accountant trained in the art of saving every possible penny. For people with lower incomes, though, the situation is more distressing. Many are filling it out on their own and if they make a mistake on their tax forms, it can be the difference between a healthy refund – a godsend to a stretched budget – or owing money they can’t spare.
Withers affirmed the real difference the tax assistance can make. “We hear from clients and they tell us about being able to put food on the table, being able to pay their bills,” she said.
With properly applied rules like the Earned Income Tax Credit, lower income people, especially those with children, can see added refund amounts in the thousands of dollars, Greenstein said.
Greenstein helps oversee the tax preparation site at UD, which he said has been busy this year. UD students assist not only at the campus location, but also at other Nehemiah Gateway CDC tax sites in the area. It’s what the IRS calls a Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program.
The Blue Hen volunteers are mostly studying accounting or similar tracks at Lerner, Greenstein said. Others come from economics or finance, and even from actuarial science, the branch of statistics that insurance companies use to build their risk calculations. Students are able to get class credit while helping out.
On a recent Saturday, the small, brightly carpeted classroom had a library hush at times. Some clients sat waiting, while others filled out paperwork or chatted with volunteers.
Jiarui Xiao, a Class of 2023 accounting and international business double major from China, sat waiting to help. Although helping with taxes isn’t easy, she said, it’s a way to get real experience beyond just what she learns in class.
At the end of the line, many clients find a moment of relief.
“You’ve successfully submitted,” Greenstein told one, who did not owe any taxes.
“That’s great, thank you so much,” she said. “It’s a big weight off my shoulders.”
Students and volunteers from Nehemiah Gateway CDC mix at the site. Xiomara Cruz-Colon, of Wilmington, was there helping out with intake, going through client forms, scanning information into the system, and standing ready to switch to Spanish when needed.
“Almost all our clients do speak English,” Greenstein said. “But it’s not necessarily their first language, so it’s certainly helpful to have somebody fluent in Spanish.”
“They get the intrinsic value of giving back and helping out the community,” Withers said. And there’s a ripple effect as sometimes clients, too, return to volunteer. “That’s our ultimate goal, to meet people where they are and help them grow,” she said.
Jackson Pittman, Class of 2023 actuarial science major in UD’s College of Arts and Sciences, said learning a new skill is helpful, especially in a key field like tax preparation. The experience has been a crash course for him. He hadn’t even done his own taxes before, but went through the Nehemiah Gateway CDC training and passed the IRS tests to qualify.
Volunteers see a variety of situations, Pittman said, from people with a simple W-2 to retirees with piles of forms. The experience has not moved him to switch to accounting, but he said, “I enjoy when people get money back.”
Greenstein added that students get practice being a professional, and they are also exposed to economic realities they may not be familiar with.
“When they [UD students] see somebody who’s only a year or two older than them, working a couple of jobs just to pay their rent and trying to go to school part time, [it] puts things in perspective.”
Years later, Scott Smith, a 2019 graduate with a master’s of science in accounting, is still glad for his experience working with the tax program. He was a graduate assistant who served as a site coordinator at one of the off-campus locations in 2019, and now has a career as an accountant. He’s carved a niche as the Form 1040 expert at his company, he said, which he partially credits to doing so many of them as a student.
“Most people were ecstatic that I was able to do this for them for free,” Smith said, and also noted, “It was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had.”