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Students Use Tax Expertise to Help Low-Income Residents
Preparing taxes is usually about making the numbers add up. If you paid too much, you get a refund. If you paid too little, you owe. But behind every tax return there’s a person and a story. And while many of us can get away with a 1040EZ or sending our W2 to TurboTax, some tax stories need more than basic accounting to sort out.
That’s why each year, a group of Bentley University graduate students offer their tax expertise to underprivileged residents who live in and around Waltham. Since the program, known as the Practicum in Low-Income Taxpayer Clinic, began in 2001, 225 Bentley students pursuing master’s degrees in taxation, accounting or financial planning have helped more than 1,500 residents, reducing the taxes they owed by $1,704,954.
“It’s experiential learning,” says John Lynch, director of Bentley’s graduate programs in Financial Planning and Taxation. “If this is an area of the tax law that you’re interested in, you couldn’t get a better course.”
Students agree. Bentley alumnus Michael Albert ’07, MST ‘08, who holds a bachelor’s degree in Accounting and a master’s degree in Taxation, had taken classes taught by Lynch when the professor recommended he participate in the low-income taxpayer clinic.
“It was a great experience because it was very hands-on,” says Albert. “You’re essentially given a case load to work on, four or five cases, and the typical case was an individual with a hardship, whether medical or financial, with a tax liability that they couldn’t pay. So you might be helping with a payment plan or helping someone prepare back returns, working with the Office of the Taxpayer Advocate within the IRS and the client.”
Becoming an Advocate
The varying needs and situations in each case forces students to go beyond their classroom skills — and often to think outside their profession.
“They all know about taxes, about the nitty-gritty of the returns that have to be prepared and filed,” Lynch says. “But when they get one of these cases, they see how much they have to sort out, how much they have to really advocate on behalf of their client. And that’s a big word, because we are advocating for these clients when no one else will.”
“You’re given a lot of ownership,” says Albert, who now works as a federal tax manager at Amazon. “It was overwhelming at first, with multiple challenges. First, there’s an emotional aspect. You’re talking to clients, and they’re real people. A few of them really poured their hearts out about the hardships they were going through. I hadn’t experienced that before.
“In college, you plan your classes, you take your tests,” he adds. “But this was different. You’re dealing with real people, with the IRS. You’re exposed to very different challenges — to developing soft skills, to solving procedural challenges — and you need to learn on the fly if you’re going to navigate your way and get those cases resolved. There was no blueprint.”
In their work for the clinic, the students’ interaction with state and federal officials often goes beyond what young tax professionals normally enjoy so early in their careers.
“When you get into the industry, you don’t get to talk to the IRS or the Mass. Department of Revenue until you’re a manager or above,” says clinic Director Diane Wilson. “Our students get the opportunity to deal with the IRS, to deal with the Mass. DOR. In addition, these are actual cases, they’re not hypothetical situations. We’re dealing with real people with real issues.”
‘Collaborating in a Very Different Way’
The Low Income Taxpayer Clinic receives federal funding to defer costs and help with tuition for the graduate students who participate. The clinic is open all year with five or six students each semester. Clients come in through outreach by the clinic and other local organizations as well as the state Department of Revenue and the IRS.
Albert says the clinic’s holistic team approach showed him a different side of the program’s faculty mentors and his fellow students.
“It’s a different experience working with the professors,” he explains. “You’re still a student and they’re still professors, but you’re collaborating in a very different way with them and with the other students in the class. It’s much more like the relationship you have when you take a job and work with your boss and colleagues. You’re all working together to solve a problem.”
After graduation, Albert stayed in Boston and worked at Grant Thornton, the financial consulting firm, and Fidelity before landing his position at Amazon. The real-world experience in the tax clinic helped in his job search and prepared him to step in and succeed at the online retail giant from day one.
“At Amazon, one of our key principles is ownership,” he says. “I don’t think you can get this kind of ownership experience in the classroom. You’re managing clients and dealing with their cases. That kind of experience is very rare in college. When you get a real job, very quickly you’re handed responsibilities that you don’t necessarily get in college. This clinic does a great job in simulating what kind of responsibilities you’ll get when you take a professional job.”