• April 20, 2022

UMBC’s free tax assistance goes virtual with Propeller for a second year

Greg M. Smith
  • by Greg M. Smith

Nobody likes tax season. But for students like Charles Hunt, an undergrad at University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), it’s a chance to help his fellow community members while gaining valuable career skills and real-world tax prep experience. 

Each spring, Charles volunteers with UMBC’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, which helps qualifying Baltimore-area families file their taxes at no cost. To volunteer with the program, students like Charles complete 15 hours of intensive training and pass an IRS-mandated test. “VITA has taught me so much about client servicing,” said Charles. “I want to be a financial advisor and help people achieve their financial goals.”

Before the pandemic, VITA volunteers would work with tax clients face-to-face at a campus computer lab. But COVID brought lots of questions. Without in-person appointments, how would clients share sensitive documents? And how would volunteers access the right software from their personal computers?

After shutting down for the 2019 tax year, VITA organizers found a solution for 2020 in Propeller virtual desktops. 

A less taxing filing process

UMBC had recently begun using Propeller virtual desktop solutions on campus to facilitate online learning, so VITA organizers were familiar with the potential. With a donation of software from Propeller, UMBC’s VITA program quickly shifted to virtual operations. 

Using their personal computers at home, volunteers accessed a shared desktop equipped with the same tax software and security features as UMBC’s on-campus computers. When they finished helping a client, the desktop, along with all the client’s personal information, simply vanished, which meant no possible security breaches. 

VITA continued to offer virtual tax prep alongside normal in-person sessions for the 2021 tax year, to great success. “The virtual desktop experience has worked perfectly at every virtual session,” said UMBC’s Assistant Vice Provost for Administration and Finance at UMBC, Trisha Wells, who also noted some unexpected benefits. “When we had to close our in-person sessions due to snow, we were able to immediately pivot to virtual tax prep.”

There were more unanticipated wins, too. For one, volunteers were able to help clients who normally couldn’t access UMBC’s campus lab, such as those with disabilities or mobility issues. Busy clients could also schedule virtual sessions between jobs or other obligations rather than commuting to campus.  

Overall, VITA’s team of 38 volunteers donated 987 hours of their time, helping file nearly 350 returns and saving clients more than $63,000 total in tax preparation fees. 

Building a tradition of virtual tax prep assistance

With such a positive response from the community, UMBC is considering keeping a hybrid VITA program going forward indefinitely. That’s good news for the hundreds of Baltimore families who rely on VITA and for program volunteers like Charles. He’s now the virtual site coordinator, where he advises and trains fellow preparers on virtual processes while assisting those filing taxes. A portion of Propeller’s financial donation went toward a well-earned scholarship for Charles.

“Now I can say on a resume that I have years of tax experience, especially in difficult times,” he said. 

Get the full story about how virtual desktops from Propeller helped UMBC’s VITA program survive the pandemic and come back stronger.

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