Dollars and Business Sense

(04-01-2014)

Tax Help Colorado program helps Adams State students get workforce-ready

Article by Melissa Viola

accounting students and professors

At Tax Help Colorado's free tax site located on Adams State University's campus in Alamosa, the students who serve as volunteer tax preparers are expected to dress in suits, greet clients with a smile and a handshake, and place as much emphasis on providing excellent customer service as they do on filing an accurate tax return. Although this tax site serves as a training ground for students interested in learning the ins-and-outs of income tax preparation, it looks—and operates—more like a professional CPA firm.

A program of The Piton Foundation and the Colorado Community College System, Tax Help Colorado offers free tax preparation services to individuals who earn less than $50,000 a year, helping to ease the burden of commercial tax preparation costs on low-wage earners while linking them to important tax benefits like the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). The program utilizes college students, who take accredited courses in income tax preparation then operate a free tax site on their campus.

Adams State is one of 27 colleges across Colorado that participates in the Tax Help Colorado program. But, thanks to the vision and leadership of Adams State School of Business professors Sheryl Abeyta and Natalie Rogers, who are both professional CPAs, this free tax site operates like a Big Four accounting firm. "I practiced professional accounting for the first 20 years of my career, and then I moved into academia," Abeyta says. "When I took over the Tax Help Colorado program, I wanted to prepare students for real life. What better way to teach students what it's like working at a big firm than to run a free tax site that way?"

The first real-world lesson the students learn at the tax site comes in the form of a professional dress code: Abeyta and Rogers require all students to be dressed for business, preferably in suits. "We are a little persnickety about the dress code," says Dr. Michael Tomlin, chair of the School of Business. "Every day these students are working toward a future career in business. We might make them overdress, but we want them to overstep to the positive and build that image. When clients come in and see the students in suits, they have more respect for them and greater confidence in their ability to do taxes."

Operationally, the tax site has a reporting-up structure with Abeyta and Rogers sitting at the helm and acting as "partners." Using grant money provided by The Piton Foundation, Abeyta and Rogers hire five students, compensating them to serve in management positions at the tax site. Twenty-year-old senior Alfred Petross, who is considered a "junior partner," manages all administrative aspects of the site, including tracking results, budgets and schedules, while four additional "managers" oversee the students serving as tax preparers. Around 40 Adams State students participate in the program, and each are assigned a different role in the tax preparation process based on their year in school and level of coursework completed.

alfred petross and 2 student volunteers

Standing, Alfred Petross served as the free tax site's administrative manager.

"Everyone understands their roles," Abeyta says. "My managers run the floor and train the staff. They walk the floor and answer questions. If the managers can't answer a question, then they come to Rogers or me. Everyone reports up, and we start getting freshmen involved as soon as they are interested so they can participate in the program all four years and move up the ranks."

In addition to teaching them about income tax preparation, Abeyta and Rogers help develop the students' soft skills, such as friendliness, respect, courtesy, empathy and patience. For instance, anyone who visits the tax site should be greeted by a student within 15 seconds of entering, and the students are encouraged to show up at the tax site early and leave late. "We're trying to teach professional ethics and how to deal with people," Abeyta says. "There is no way to teach those skills in a classroom. Our students know how to make decisions and think on their feet. We are preparing them with the knowledge and the soft skills they will need to succeed."

And the model is already working, with past Tax Help Colorado students from Adams State currently working at prestigious firms such as PricewaterhouseCoopers in Boston and Ernst & Young in Denver. "My goal is to get my masters in taxation and then my law degree," says Taylor Crowther, a junior and will take over the junior partner position after Petross graduates this year. "Having this on my resume and the experience that comes with it is going to be really helpful."

Providing free tax assistance to struggling families is particularly important in Colorado's San Luis Valley, which is home to some of the state's poorest counties. Petross estimates that the median income of clients visiting the Adams State free tax site is around $19,000, and most qualify for the EITC, a federal tax credit that working families with children receive to help make ends meet. In fact, five San Luis Valley counties—Conejos, Saguache, Costilla, Alamosa and Rio Grande—have some of the highest percentage of taxpayers receiving the EITC in the state.

In 2011, nearly $11.5 million in EITC dollars went to more than 5,000 San Luis Valley residents, helping these families become more financially stable while also boosting the local economy. "We have some the poorest counties in the state—if not the nation—here in the San Luis Valley," says Randy Wright, executive director of the Alamosa County Economic Development Corporation. "The students at Adams State are helping people file their taxes so they can claim important refunds. In an economically depressed area, an infusion of money like that makes a substantial difference."

And the San Luis Valley residents who save money by visiting Adams States' free tax site rather than using a paid preparer are very appreciative of the service being provided to them. From offering big hugs and kind words to bringing pizza for the students, the tax site clients find ways to show their thanks. "It's nice to know that we are building relationships with people in the community, and it's amazing to hear the positive feedback, like clients saying they are getting the best quality service," Petross says.

Because the students understand that free tax filing is much-needed in their community, they are eager to sacrifice their evenings and weekends to work at the tax site, which was open on Monday nights and Saturdays. Most students juggle the free tax work with regular jobs, and Petross estimates that the students have volunteered more than 1,500 hours to the program this year. "I work two other jobs," says senior Olivia DeHerrera, who serves as one of the tax site managers. "This program is so worthwhile that we make time for it. I learn something every time I step foot in here."

The students credit their professors, Abeyta and Rogers, for building a solid, engaging program. "They are doing this for the students and for the community," says DeHerrera. "They are such a wonderful resource, and they go above and beyond to make sure this is a good experience. We want to be here doing this because it's such a good program."

In addition to the hard-working students and faculty who volunteer their time, the program was a success because it has strong administrative support. On most Saturday mornings, Tomlin helps open the tax site, making coffee, putting out newspapers and ensuring that everything is running smoothly. "It's one thing for a program to have administrative endorsement—it's something else for volunteers to see administrators on the ground," he says. "I believe it's very important for them to know they have my support."

During the 2014 tax season, Adams State's tax site helped more than 800 people claim more than $1.2 million, including nearly $400,000 in EITC refunds. As the Tax Help Colorado program continues to grow in popularity on campus, Abeyta says the tax site will have the capacity to help even more people next year. And, she hopes to see the program expand off-campus, specifically at other four-year universities across the state. "This program is creating a culture that everyone on campus wants to be part of," she says. "And, if you are a School of Business and not offering this service, you are missing out on a huge opportunity. This is something you can add to your curriculum to get kids ready for work while providing a great service to the community."