College Connect: UGA Finance Students Provide Free Tax Filing Through Community Outreach Program

Posted By Crystal Beasley

By Nathan Hutto

The University of Georgia gives back to its Athens community in many ways, but one service gains special attention every spring: finance students provide free tax filing and financial advice.

Lance Palmer, associate professor of financial planning, housing and consumer economics, oversees a program that involves about 80 undergraduate students and 20 graduate students deployed to work in four different locations throughout Athens.

“Low to moderate income people don’t believe they have control over their savings, but they do,” said Palmer. “I’ve found the best way to show people that is to motivate their intrinsic goals – clarifying their personal goals and expressing belief that they can achieve.”

The program, known as the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, is an IRS program designed to help low and moderate income taxpayers complete their annual tax returns at no cost.

The program works in conjunction with the Georgia United Credit Union, which handles the appointment schedules and donates $20,000 a year to help fund the program. Tom Cochran, a member of the Georgia United Credit Union board, has assisted the program for 12 years, and he co-teaches some of the classes.

Palmer’s undergraduate finance students must be certified in tax law at the advanced level through the IRS by January 23rd every semester, which takes about seven to ten hours to complete.

“The course definitely ramps up fast, but the students get invaluable real-world experience,” Palmer said.

“The VITA program is so important to us because we can see the direct impact it has on people, especially those with a low to moderate income,” Palmer said. “I also personally enjoy seeing the growth of my students as they go through this program.”

Graduate students oversee the undergraduate students, who meet with clients for an hour to discuss financial planning and personalized saving strategies, which Palmer said is key to helping people manage their finances better.

“As a CPA, I felt I was helping society, but I wasn’t really helping people on an individual level,” said Palmer. “Financial planning needs to relate specifically to each person individually or they won’t be motivated to change. VITA gives us the opportunity to do that.”

Michael Gene Thomas, a third year Ph.D. financial planning student, said he wears many hats while overseeing undergraduate students – managing the VITA sites, answering any questions his students might have and working alongside students on unique cases.

“The students are pretty engaged, even though the first few meetings they have are pretty nerve wracking for them,” said Thomas. “What makes this program great is it gives them real experience the first time they have to utilize these skills.”

Thomas said the VITA program is the reason he came to UGA for grad school. He wanted to serve vulnerable and disadvantaged populations, he said. “There are no laws against an uncertified individual setting up shop in a community and charging citizens $100 to $300 to do their taxes, which can be a huge hit for those with low incomes, and they just aren’t aware they don’t have to do that,” he said.

Finding new ways to better serve poor populations is extremely valuable to Thomas, and he finds his students’ newfound confidence at the end of the semester affirming.

“I feel like I’m in the right place,” he said.

Nathan Hutton is a student at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia.

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