By Patty Park
April 15, officially known as Tax Day, is often associated with anxiety and apprehension. The complexities of federal and state tax codes can be daunting and challenging to navigate, causing many taxpayers to turn to professional tax preparation services to help them complete their return. These resources are often cost prohibitive and not easily accessible to all in the community.
For the past 50 years, the CSUN Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) Clinic has been providing free tax preparation services to low-income individuals and families who otherwise would not be able to afford help securing the maximum amount of tax refunds and credits owed to them.
CSUN was the first academic institution in the nation to offer free tax preparation services. Housed in the Nazarian College, the CSUN VITA Clinic was founded in 1971 by former CSUN professor Gary Iskowitz. Five decades later, the program has inspired more than 8,000 clinics across the country, with more than 500 similar programs housed at colleges and universities nationwide.
During the 2021 tax season alone — in the midst of a worldwide pandemic — the CSUN VITA Clinic served nearly 6,000 low-income taxpayers in Los Angeles County virtually, helping them claim $6.7 million in tax refunds and $2.6 million in federal tax credits — and saving them nearly $1.2 million in tax preparation fees.
With focus and determination, the CSUN VITA Clinic finished the tax season ranked No. 1 for serving the highest number of low-income taxpayers among 642 sites in California and among 339 academic institutions nationwide.
ACCESS AND A SIGH OF RELIEF
When low-income taxpayers first turn to the CSUN VITA Clinic, they often arrive with multiple worries: How much will I end up owing? How will I be able to afford it? What will happen to my family if we can’t pay?
“Individuals come here expecting to have to pay the government, and many let out a deep sigh of relief when we tell them they may not owe anything, or perhaps even have a sizable refund coming,” said Rafi Efrat, Bookstein Chair in Taxation and director of the CSUN VITA Clinic, noting that many low-income households gain access to valuable tax credits, including the Earned Income Tax Credit. “The unexpected funds can be set aside for a down payment on a house, for their children’s education or to pay off debt. However they end up deciding to use their refund, they realize we are here to help — and they come back year after year.
“It’s really all about access,” Efrat continued, noting that some individuals need help with multiple years of returns; many are independent contractors whose returns require more time and could involve significant fees if prepared by other tax preparation services. “Low-income taxpayers in our community don’t have the ability to access these resources. Our students step in to fill that gap.”
The CSUN VITA Clinic is run almost entirely by a team of student volunteers who are certified tax preparers. Before they are allowed to prepare a client’s return, each student receives rigorous career-level training and must pass a series of IRS certification exams. They can then set up tax screenings and Individual Taxpayer Identification Number applications, provide financial coaching, and help taxpayers with overall support and IRS-related questions or concerns.
It’s a win-win for the taxpayers who need the assistance and the students who are developing the skills they need to thrive in their professional careers.
“For the past three tax years, CSUN VITA provided a way for me to give back to the community and learn about the tax system, as well as the opportunity to develop client communication skills,” said German Cruz Ruiz, an accounting major who served as lead supervisor for the clinic. “We were given the tools to empower our low-income community and help them maneuver through these times of uncertainty and change.”
Student volunteers also collaborate with the Bookstein Low-Income Taxpayer Clinic, a Nazarian College program established in 2008 with the support of philanthropists and alumni Harvey Bookstein ’70 (Business Administration), Hon.D. ’16 and his wife, Harriet, to serve clients with disputes with the IRS or the Franchise Tax Board. The Bookstein Low- Income Taxpayer Clinic handles the client’s representation before the tax authorities, but if tax returns need to be completed as part of the dispute, one of the VITA team members steps in.
The Booksteins also established a $750,000 endowment to support the CSUN VITA Clinic in perpetuity, providing merit scholarships each year for VITA student volunteers.
EXPANDING ITS REACH
In 2019, the CSUN VITA Clinic expanded its reach with the launch of the CSU5 Plus Collaboration. Thanks to a grant from the state of California, CSUN partnered with four other California State University campuses in Los Angeles County — known as the CSU5 — and six L.A.-based community colleges, to help taxpayers in every corner of Los Angeles. The collaborating campuses were CSU Dominguez Hills, Cal State L.A., Cal Poly Pomona, Cal State Long Beach, L.A. Mission College, Rio Hondo Community College, Santa Monica College, College of the Canyons, East L.A. Community College, and Mt. San Antonio College.
Powered by more than 850 student volunteers across the 11-campus initiative, the collaboration provided free tax preparation to 14,000 low-income taxpayers in its first year. In 2020, due to COVID-19, many of the campuses shut down and reopened virtually. This year, more campuses returned with a digital space, with plans for the collaboration to resume in full force in 2022.
In addition, the CSUN VITA program seeks to reach even more segments of the population in need of its services.
“Every year we target a new group of taxpayers we haven’t focused on,” Efrat said. The CSUN VITA Clinic has partnered with community organizations to serve the Spanish-speaking population, members of the Deaf community, veterans, low-income day laborers and more. Efrat said they are currently working with a nonprofit that helps adults with challenges transition into adult living. “As they get their first job, we want to help make their first tax return as smooth as possible,” he said.
NO MATCH FOR A PANDEMIC
During the 2020 tax season, when the global pandemic put an abrupt halt to face-to-face services at all VITA clinics in March, the CSUN VITA Clinic faculty and students remained undeterred in their mission. By May, with the approval of the IRS, the clinic was able to offer virtual tax preparation services to the community five days a week.
In 2021, the clinic returned even stronger and in full force, giving community members access to their services eight hours a day, seven days a week through a virtual clinic — allowing clients to send their documents through a secure, online portal. In addition, the clinic offered a drop-off method for individuals facing technology challenges, allowing them to submit their documents at a secure, local site, then return to receive their tax return.
“Filing these returns are more important than ever,” said Cynthia Montes, an accounting student and CSUN VITA Clinic co-coordinator. “The homeless, elderly and those in low- income communities need to file their returns so they can receive their economic stimulus checks, so it’s extremely important they have access to these services.”
“The challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic tested us in ways we never imagined,” said Chandra Subramaniam, dean of the Nazarian College. “I am proud of the unwavering dedication the CSUN VITA Clinic has shown to our community and its low-income taxpayers during these unprecedented times.”
According to Efrat, these vital services are only possible year after year because of the generous support of community businesses and organizations, including Wells Fargo Bank, City National Bank, Bank of Hope, and of course the Booksteins.
‘A BRIGHT LIGHT’
As CSUN VITA Clinic celebrates its 50th anniversary and looks ahead, Efrat said he hopes even more universities nationwide will replicate the CSUN model on their campuses.
“Many of our students come back to volunteer after graduation because they feel they are making a difference,” he said. “It’s inspiring to us as faculty that not only are we fulfilling our mission of preparing our graduates to enter the fields of taxation and accounting with valuable work experience, but our students are seeing how their skills can make a huge difference in the lives of the people they serve.”
It’s what CSUN is all about.
“The knowledge taught and gained at CSUN exists to be a bright and unwavering light shared with the world,” said CSUN President Erika D. Beck. “Few programs embody that purpose more clearly than CSUN VITA. In the midst of a global pandemic that disproportionately affected low-income populations and put socioeconomic inequities into sharp focus, this program’s work in assisting community members has never been more critical. CSUN VITA is a clear example of how higher education and a university degree have the power to not only change individual lives, but to impact the world beyond our campus.”
For more information about the CSUN VITA Clinic, visit vita.csun.edu or call 818-677-3600.
CSUN VITA Clinic: The 2021 Tax Season, By the Numbers
221 Student Volunteers
5,677 Taxpayers Served
$1.2 mil Saved in Tax Preparation Fees
$2.6 mil in Federal Tax Credits
$6.7 mil in Total Refunds
Ranked No. 1 for serving the highest number of taxpayers among 642 VITA clinics in California and among 339 academic institutions nationwide.