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Tax-Aide Program Gives Accounting Students Good Returns on Investment

Taxes aren’t so taxing for folks taking advantage of the AARP Tax-Aide program, where SUNY Plattsburgh accounting interns assist in the preparation and filing of returns.

Nicole Viscardo is a senior accounting major from Bloomingdale, N.Y., who has returned to the AARP Tax-Aide program at the Senior Citizens Council of Clinton County for her second year as an intern tax preparer. For her, volunteering there is a win-win-win. She wins because the program gives her real-world public tax preparation experience. The clients win because they receive real assistance with their taxes, some of which are more complicated than the EZ forms. And the AARP program wins because of the college provides them with a talented pool of accounting interns each year. 

“I got involved my junior year when a couple supervisors from the AARP Plattsburgh site came to speak to our Income Tax I class about the internship they do with accounting students,” Viscardo said. “I figured it would be something that would be a great addition to my resume, an opportunity to work on my communication skills as well as something that was good for the community.”

Savings for Clients

Marcia LaPierre, the program’s volunteer coordinator, agreed.

“This is a win for the college,” she said. “The experience and resume-building is the win for the students; and the community wins by having about one tax return per student hour prepared for free. Ten students will do 400 to 500 returns — both federal and state. The IRS estimates the average cost of a professional tax return is $260. This is a great savings for the local population. And the Tax-Aide program also wins by serving more clients.”

SUNY Plattsburgh’s accounting program, offered through the AACSB-accredited School of Business and Economics, prepares students for a variety of opportunities — from public accounting to accounting for nonprofit organizations and more.

The new online accounting option gives students who finished an associate’s degree or equivalent coursework else the chance to finish with a SUNY Plattsburgh bachelor’s degree without stepping foot on campus.

Seventeen accounting-major volunteers are assisting this semester, according to Dr. Mohamed Gaber, professor and chair of the accounting program. “This is the 16th year that our accounting program has participated in this program at different levels and under different names. One can imagine the great impact to the local economy as a result of getting back such tax refunds to the people who need it the most.

Gaber said last year at this time, accounting majors filed more than 1,000 federal and state tax returns.

“I am sure they will do the same during the 2017 tax season,” he said.

To qualify, interns must have a minimum of one course in taxation and are expected to study and pass the IRS online tax examination. The students must volunteer at the North Catherine Street site for a minimum of 40 hours for 1 credit hour but can do more if they have the time in their schedules.

“All returns are prepared on a first-come, first-served basis, so students get whomever is next — not just the easy ones,” LaPierre said. “Most students admit to learning something every day, since the simpler returns tend to come first and the more complex ones later in the season.”

Returns Reviewed

All returns are quality reviewed by an experienced prepare prior to sending so that clients are reassured of accuracy and students continually learn more about intricate tax laws, LaPierre said.

LaPierre praised Gaber for supporting the program.

“The support we receive from SUNY Plattsburgh — most especially Dr. Gaber — is just phenomenal,” she said. “Our program has been touted as a national model at the annual AARP Tax-Aide National Conference in Dallas. There are other programs around the country, but our YouTube video made a few years ago is still being used.” You can view the video here: www.youtube.com/watch.

“It is a win-win opportunity,” Gaber said. “Our tri-county community residents get their federal and state returns filed electronically and receive their funds faster. At the same time, our accounting majors get a superb experience in filing and feel proud that they are able to help families and individuals who rely on such free tax filing.”

Although Viscardo said she has seen clients in their 20s, the majority are senior citizens, many of whom are on a fixed income, so the free tax prep is an economical benefit to them as well.

Job in Hand

“Clients are impressed with the quality and knowledge of the interns,” LaPierre said.

Viscardo, who graduates in May with a degree in hand and a job already lined up with Leverpoint Management in Clifton Park, N.Y., said the experience was “great all around.”

“If you take full advantage of it, you can greatly improve your communication and interviewing skills. It may also teach you to ask questions and when to ask them,” she said.

She said enjoyed her experience so much last year, she decided to repeat the internship this year.

“I think it’s a great service, and the majority of people are very grateful for our service. I’m glad I can use my skills and knowledge in order to benefit them.”

Most of the clients use the simple forms, but Viscaro said she has helped prepare some of the more complicated returns with itemized deductions and self-employment income.

“Even if we have to ask for help from our supervisors when doing the more complicated forms, it’s a great learning experience,” she said. “As interns, we obviously don’t know every tax rule, so there’s bound to be times when you’ll need to ask questions. Also, even if you never plan to go into taxes, everyone has to file, and it’s a great way to learn about the tax system and rules in general.”

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