Fairfield University Dolan School of Business students help community

Students in a service-learning course offered at Fairfield University's Charles F. Dolan School of Business will provide free tax preparation services for low-income families and individuals in Bridgeport from early February to April 14. The students, mostly senior accounting majors, take the elective course, Federal Income Taxation II, which includes a service-learning component.

The students will participate in the Bridgeport Campaign of the Internal Revenue Service's National Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program. The Bridgeport Campaign of VITA is run under the auspices of the Greater Bridgeport Family Economic Security Coalition, a group of organizations that provide a wide spectrum of social services. By providing a tax service that most lower income families cannot afford, VITA volunteers are often able to provide families and individuals with information on federal and state income tax credits they might otherwise miss.

Students will assist clients in obtaining federal and state income tax benefits, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Child Tax Credit (CTC), tax benefits many working families don't claim. Many workers eligible for these credits are not aware of the helpful deductions. The maximum EITC for a single person without children is $412, while a married couple with children can receive as much as $4,536.

Kathleen Weiden, Ph.D., CPA, assistant professor of accounting, who modified the existing course to add a service learning component, said students will get hands-on experience by working for the VITA program while at the same time help the community. "Our students will be working throughout tax season four hours per week preparing tax returns for free for low-income families and individuals around Bridgeport. It will be a great way to learn outside of a classroom setting. The service learning component is inspired by the Catholic Jesuit educational mission of Fairfield University that calls for the dynamic integration of academic excellence, social responsibility, and faith that promotes justice."       

Among the many benefits of the program for students are that they will gain experience working with real taxpayers in a real world setting, and be exposed to cutting edge tax preparation software, including electronic filing software. The course qualifies as a United States Diversity course, the first for the accounting program at the Dolan School of Business, exposing students to both economic and ethnic diversity in the population.

It was developed in collaboration with the Office of Service Learning at Fairfield University, an integral academic component of the Center for Faith & Public Life. The Office of Service Learning provides resources and links for collaboration among students, faculty, staff, community organizations, and international partners - with a particular commitment to the Greater Bridgeport Area - and works with established local, regional, and national initiatives, such as the VITA Program.

For the most recent filing season, the majority (42%) of Bridgeport VITA clients were African-American, 40% were Latino/Hispanic, and 12% were Caucasian. The Median Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) for a Bridgeport VITA client last year was $16,615, and only 16% of filers had adjusted gross incomes of more than $35, 450. 

Ellen Carter, outreach advocate for the Connecticut Association for Human Services, said VITA also helps people with credit counseling, home ownership and financial education. "Kathy saw an opportunity for Fairfield students to work in the community. It's a part of an initiative to get students to learn from hands-on experience and develop their skills, and it is helping a lot of peoples' economic situations."

Dr. Weiden said, "Students have been exposed to these credits from a tax policy perspective, but now they will actually get to see policy in action, as well as meet taxpayers who benefit from these specific tax credit policies."

Last year, VITA helped prepare 2,168 tax returns for Bridgeport and Stratford residents, a 54% increase compared to the 2005 tax season. The program helped these local residents claim more than $3.3 million dollars in federal and state refunds, and more than $1.7 million in tax credits, such as the EITC and the CTC credits.

Meanwhile, the cost of tax preparers can be out of reach for working families and individuals, as the average cost spans $55 to $130, plus it can cost another $100 to get a refund anticipation loan. It doesn't always make sense for low-income families to pay for tax preparation. That is where VITA can be instrumental. 

Anticipated 2007 Tax Season VITA Sites in Bridgeport include ABCD, Inc., 1070 Park Avenue; ACORN, 2310 Main Street; Burroughs Community Center, 2470 Fairfield Avenue; Bridgeport Social Services, 752 East Main Street; Calvary Temple Christian Center, 319 Barnum Avenue; Career Resources, Inc., 350 Fairfield Avenue; Casey Family Services 789 Reservoir Avenue; Charles D. Smith Foundation, 755 Central Avenue; FSW, Inc., 475 Clinton Avenue; and Hall Neighborhood House, 52 George Pipkins Way. In Stratford, VITA has a location at the Stratford South End Community Center, 19 Bates Street.

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Media Contact: Meg McCaffrey, (203) 254-4000, ext. 2726, mmccaffrey@fairfield.edu

Posted on January 29, 2007

Vol. 39, No. 131

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