A new Wharton course serves low-income taxpayers and provides students with experiential learning.

On a Saturday morning in March, undergraduate students from the Wharton course, “Accounting 2110: Tax Policy and Practice in Philadelphia,” reported to Ebenezer Temple Pentecostal Church in the Cobbs Creek neighborhood to assist community members with filing their income taxes. The church’s basement was filled with Philadelphians waiting to receive tax filing help.

“Finance is a really big part of a lot of people’s lives, and being able to help them with that is really impactful,” said first-year Wharton student Jessica Rosales, W’27.

The Academically Based Community Service (ABCS) course is offered through Wharton’s Accounting and Business Economics & Public Policy departments and includes an academic component and a community service aspect. It is a collaboration with Penn’s Netter Center for Community Partnerships and the IRS’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, which provides free tax prep to people who make $64,000 or less, persons with disabilities, and limited-English-speaking taxpayers.

Jessica Rosales, W’27, at her tax station at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. (Image: Weining Ding, W’27)

Wharton launched the tax policy course last year. A significant portion of the class is dedicated to in-the-field community service. Students receive a two-week training from VITA to become certified income-tax preparers. They then volunteer at least 40 hours throughout the semester at any of the 12 VITA sites in the city. The tax-prep locations are managed by the Philadelphia nonprofit Campaign for Working Families, which expects to file 42,000 tax returns in 2024.

Rosales heard about the course from friends and was immediately drawn to the course’s combination of financial work and community service.

The Chicago-area native volunteers at two locations and recalled connecting with a woman she was helping.

“Most of the time [clients] are just sitting here, and they’re waiting and watching,” she said. “But we were able to talk, and it was nice to have that person-to-person communication.”

Skills, she says, are crucial.

“Being able to work with people in sensitive situations—because financial stuff is kind of personal—and knowing how to manage that is really, really important.”

Putting theory into practice

Open to all Penn undergraduates, the integrated classroom experience empowers students from different academic backgrounds to interact and collaborate throughout their work with the community.

College sophomore Aaron Lee, C’26, typically joins Rosales and a few of the other 24 students in the course, at the Cobbs Creek location on Saturdays. The philosophy, politics, and economics major finds enormous value in the ABCS class’s unique learning structure and enjoys the intellectual stimulation gained from seeing the United States’ tax structure in action.

Aaron Lee, C’26, at Ebenezer Temple in Cobbs Creek, (Image: Grace Meredith)

“This class gives us practical skills, like going into the community and actually doing the work, but it also delves deeply into tax theory and the academic side of the numbers,” Lee explained. “We learned about why we tax in the first place and how what a society chooses to tax is a reflection of a community’s priorities, a society’s goals. This added context gives an extra layer of purpose to the community work we’re doing here on site.”

Course instructor Edward Scott sees his students develop in a myriad of different dimensions, both personal and professional.

“Because they interact with clients concerning financial matters, the students grow in so many ways,” he said. “This work leads to conversations about their clients’ personal lives.”

Scott also says students benefit from working with the experienced tax-prep professionals at VITA and the Campaign for Working Families.

“These experts often live in the community and have rich and insightful life experiences to share with students that also enriches the educational experiences.”

The course, which integrates service with research, teaching, and learning, also includes guest lecturers who discuss academic and economic rationales behind tax structure.

Lee says the lectures complemented the field work by breaking down aspects of the tax system.

“Taxes, I think, are something very nebulous to people, and I think a very negative connotation to a lot of people,” Lee said. “Even for myself, before I came to Penn, it was very scary and sort of a mysterious process.”

 “The most impactful class I’ve taken”

Several students from the inaugural class last spring were so inspired by their experience that they are trying to create ways for students to continue volunteering separately from the course.

One of those students is Wharton senior Xavier Shankle who says the class was eye-opening.

“It’s the most impactful class I’ve taken,” he said. “We take finance and accounting, and we learn a lot of formula, but we don’t really apply those formulas for a long time.”

He says the first opportunity for practical application is potentially summer internships, if they are in banking or consulting. This course, he says, was different.

“We learned a business concept in class and then, literally, maybe a day later, we’d be in front of a client filing a return,” Shankle said. “It was very direct, the relationship between the content that we learned and practicing it in the field.”

Students learned economic policies and immediately saw firsthand how that could affect people’s quality of life.

“Hearing and seeing different salary levels or different exceptions that people have, different family situations and having those conversations was very eye-opening to the wide range of experiences that people have in Philadelphia,” the Atlanta native said.

Shankle and other classmates who are passionate about the tax policy course are working on ideas to continue student involvement in tax preparation.

The group is looking into the feasibility of having a VITA site on campus because students noticed how many clients work at Penn but are spread out across different tax prep locations. Another idea they are looking into is creating a consistent cohort of student volunteers who aren’t in the course, like a student club, get recertified by VITA every year and go to the existing locations around the city.

According to Rosales and Lee, these hands-on experiences helped them be more informed citizens.

“We talk about difficult topics, right? Taxing and those things are obviously very political, very contentious,” said Lee. “But if you’re able to understand them at a very fundamental level, then I feel like you have much better conversations around them and nuanced conversations, which I think is really important when you’re talking to people. And that’s why I think it’s really cool that we get to do all of this.”

Both advocate for others to take the course, in part because of the unique ability to connect with local Philadelphians.

“I love that this course has deepened my relationship with the city and helped me learn more about the community,” Rosales said. “I love meeting with such diverse groups of people, especially older people who I wouldn’t get a chance to interact with outside of this class. It’s just really opened my eyes in ways I never would have experienced without this opportunity.”

– Sara Hoover (Contributor Grace Meredith)

Posted: April 15, 2024

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