Groups weather tax season

Students volunteer to help peers and community members file their taxes for free.

Volunteer Tax Assistance Program volunteer Alissa Nordstrom, a senior finance major with an international business minor, helps former U student Janalyn Bump file her taxes in Hanson Hall on Saturday.

Image by Patricia Grover

Volunteer Tax Assistance Program volunteer Alissa Nordstrom, a senior finance major with an international business minor, helps former U student Janalyn Bump file her taxes in Hanson Hall on Saturday.

by Taylor Nachtigal

As the April 15 deadline for filing taxes approaches, students such as elementary education senior Emily Blessinger have to file tax returns on their own for the first time.

Blessinger used to rely on her parents to file her taxes. But last year, she found out that the Volunteer Tax Assistance Program, a University of Minnesota student group, would prepare her tax return for free.

At the University, two IRS-certified student groups — VTAP and U-Finance — are expanding their volunteer staff to help more people than in previous years.

VTAP, which has grown steadily since its start in 2006, helped file 937 tax returns in the 2013 tax season. This year, its goal is to extend its services to more than 1,000 University students and community members.

Many students have found the free service to be convenient and helpful with saving money.

“I’ve never attempted to do this myself, so it was definitely helpful,” Blessinger said.

VTAP director Zach Prebeck said one student that the group helped this tax season had previously paid H&R Block to file her tax return. But when she realized VTAP would do it for free, the student opted to stay on campus for tax assistance.

“It helps show the value of our service,” Prebeck said. “People realize that we’re around and can help and potentially save a couple hundred dollars for them.”

Undergraduate and graduate students make up most of VTAP’s clientele, but the group’s tax-help service is available to anyone in the community with a household income of $57,000 or less.

While non-students make up a small portion of VTAP clients, some come from neighborhoods around Minneapolis.

“We do see small amounts of [University] staff members; we do see some families from the Cedar-Riverside or Uptown areas,” Prebeck said.

VTAP’s main office is in Hanson Hall’s Undergraduate Business Career Center, which is open during weekday business hours.

In attempts to expand the program and reach students all over the Twin Cities campus, VTAP has added satellite locations at locations such as the St. Paul Student Center, Coffman Union, Science Teaching and Student Services and Centennial Hall’s library, which are all open on Saturdays.

VTAP also coordinates a non-resident program to help international students file their tax returns.

The group is completely student-run by a group of about 75 volunteers, all trained in an IRS certification program, Prebeck said.

The IRS training and hands-on experience help give students experience for their future careers, he said.

VTAP will work on tax returns until the day they’re due — April 15.

U-Finance also helps with tax returns, but it focuses on student groups.

Most of the group’s work involves performing audits for student groups, but it also provides financial consulting services.

“Our primary bread and butter has been the auditing service, because that’s how our group started out,” said director Steven Kislenko, an accounting and finance sophomore.

University groups that receive student services fees are regularly audited by an external, third-party firm, he said, so U-Finance helps these groups prepare documentation beforehand.

But during tax season, the group helps student organizations prepare IRS forms to apply for nonprofit status and file nonprofit tax returns.

U-Finance is completely student-run and has about 30 members, Kislenko said, but membership numbers fluctuate depending on the season.

The group is partnered with Student Unions and Activities and the Office for Student Affairs, and both refer student groups that need financial assistance to the volunteer-led organization.

The group, which started in 2012, is now working to grow its campus prescence by adding a marketing division to reach out to new groups.

“Any group that really asks for our help, we’ll do our best to help them out.” Kislenko said. “We’re just pretty much the people that help set them up for success.”