Employing a VITA program to prepare students for professional practice.

Date01 May 2022
AuthorFranklin, Mitchell

Accounting education research has provided significant evidence that there is a considerable gap between the skills learned by graduates of accounting programs and those expected by the accounting profession of new hires (Yu, Churyk, and Chang, "Are Students Ready for Their Future Accounting Careers? Insights From Observed Perception Gaps Among Employers, Interns, and Alumni," 10 Global Perspectives on Accounting Education 1 (2013); Jackling and De Lange, "Do Accounting Graduates' Skills Meet the Expectations of Employers? A Matter of Convergence or Divergence," 18 Accounting Education 369 (2009)).

A specific setting for student experiential learning is volunteer income tax preparation, where student volunteers must develop a basic understanding of and familiarity with the Internal Revenue Code. Hageman and Fisher ("Student and Professional Attitudes About the Use of the Internal Revenue Code and Treasury Regulations in an Introductory Tax Class," 14 Advances in Accounting Education 213 (2013)) find that this increased familiarity with the Code from training and application to client tax returns through hands-on Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program experience increases overall tax proficiency. This supports previous findings by Balden, Stemkoski, Bender, and Allen ("Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) Program Dramatically Increases Knowledge Retention and Student Skills," 1 Journal of Business & Economics Research 35 (2003)) that students increase their retention and mastery of tax concepts in the classroom as well as show improvement in overall problem-solving skills.

Researchers show that student volunteer experience in a VITA program improves problem-solving skills and fosters a commitment to the profession (Christensen and Woodland, "Is Participation in the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) Program Associated With Students' Problem-Solving Skills and Professional Commitment?" 31 Issues in Accounting Education 71 (2015)). They also find a correlation between student participation in a VITA program and ethical decision-making, a soft skill desired in the profession that is not often delivered effectively in a classroom setting (Christensen and Woodland, "An Investigation of the Relationships Among Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) Participation and Ethical Judgment and Decision Making," 147 Journal of Business Ethics 529 (2018); Cohen, Pant, and Sharp, "An Examination of Differences in Ethical Decision-Making Between Canadian Business Students and Accounting Professionals," 30 Journal of Business Ethics 319 (2001)).

The impact that participation in a VITA program can also have on a student's appreciation of volunteerism should not be undervalued, as most organizations now expect their professional employees to actively contribute time, skills, and money back to society in a variety of charitable ways. To that end, it was found that VITA program volunteers report significantly increased positive attitudes toward volunteering, the role of accounting in addressing social issues, and helping others. They also showed a willingness to offer free representation of low-income taxpayers in the future.

In 2015, Blanthorne and Westin conducted a comprehensive literature review and survey of the VITA program and its integration with accounting education at the collegiate level ("VITA: A Comprehensive Review of the Literature and an Analysis of the Program in Accounting Education in the U.S.," 31 Issues in Accounting Education 51 (2015)). Consistent with all prior research, those surveyed reported that VITA is a positive experiential learning activity, but it is often challenging to maintain a program.

One major issue is finding faculty who are qualified and willing to supervise and mentor the student volunteers (Bauman, Nichols, Anderson, and Outslay, "Pro-Bono Tax Services: The Role of Tax Academics and Students," 36 The Tax Adviser 500 (August 2005)). In fact, the increasing reliance by many colleges and universities on adjunct faculty (who do not have departmental service requirements that serve as an incentive to manage a VITA program) has exacerbated the scarcity of support needed to manage a VITA program, an issue well-documented in other professional programs like accountancy (Fagan-Wilen, Springer, Ambrosino, and White, "The Support of Adjunct Faculty: An Academic Imperative," 25 Social Work Education 39 (2006)).

This column describes two ways to implement volunteer tax preparation into an accounting curriculum and illustrates how to integrate the development of transferable skills and technical content necessary for students to succeed on the CPA Exam and in an accounting career. In addition to preparing students for the profession, a student volunteer tax preparation program can be a significant factor in demonstrating engagement, innovation, and impact for Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) accreditation standards. This column is intended to serve as a road map to implementation--with or without the IRS.

Option 1: Integration of VITA into an accounting course

Option 1 integrates an IRS VITA center as an experiential...

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