I’m not sure what parents and students dread more, filing taxes or filling out their FAFSA forms?

Unfortunately the federal government has us over a barrel. If we skip FAFSA we miss out on important scholarships and grants and means-tested student loans. Skip taxes? Here comes the IRS knocking on your door.

However, maybe we can make the process slightly less tedious by combining them…

Last fall I was lucky to meet Marcia Spivey, who directs the Capital Area College Access Network (CapCAN). While I hadn’t heard of college access networks before, I was excited to learn about the college-prep training, FAFSA assistance and other K-12 supports they coordinate in hopes of increasing college attainment for Michigan’s students. As a volunteer tax preparer for the Asset Independence Coalition (AIC), I saw a natural link between VITA and FAFSA assistance.

Together, CapCAN, AIC and CEDAM were able to develop two pilot VITA + FAFSA sites at Eastern and Everett High Schools in Lansing, MI for the 2013 tax season. We set up a system in which students and parents would complete their tax returns with IRS-trained and certified VITA volunteers and then complete their FAFSA forms, assisted by CapCAN volunteers. Here’s what we learned:

  • School counselors have excellent rapport with students and their parents, which can help engage new participants in free tax assistance services, especially those linked to FAFSA assistance;
  • Students can be a deciding factor in encouraging their parents to use free tax assistance services instead of relying on (often predatory) paid tax preparation;
  • Students/parents need the Fed 1040 to complete their FAFSA; the only way to ensure they can access important financial aid for school without paying a fee for tax prep is to connect them with free tax preparation options (e.g. VITA or free online software like myfreetaxes.com);
  • Some high school students make significant incomes through after-school and weekend jobs (we served some students with AGI $5,000-$10,000); access to VITA ensures these students will file taxes and can connect them with opportunities to save a portion of their income and plan for future post-secondary education and training expenses; and
  • Community members, even those without children in school, see local schools as resources and appreciate the opportunity to go to a school for services like VITA

While not without a few hiccups along the way, the Lansing VITA + FAFSA sites came off as a success! I hope AIC and CapCAN will continue to explore opportunities for partnership in the future, refining their approach based on the lessons learned above. I also hope other VITA and college access groups in the state will begin to explore opportunities for partnership. If you serve a local VITA coalition or college access program, feel free to contact me if you are interested in developing VITA + FAFSA sites.

A few communities in Michigan are also connecting VITA and FAFSA directly with tax software at community tax sites, through a pilot sponsored by the National Community Tax Coalition (NCTC). The results of this pilot will help us understand how to better connect free tax assistance and financial aid application in the future. In another related effort, the Washtenaw County Asset Building Coalition offers VITA to students at the Thomas M. Cooley Law campus in Ann Arbor, promoting their services to students who need tax returns for their FAFSA forms.

When we bring parents, students, local schools and free tax assistance together and streamline tax prep and FAFSA application, we ensure community members get every penny of their tax refund and access the financial aid they deserve.

I hope free tax assistance and college access groups can continue to make tax season a family, and community, affair.

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