LEWISTON – Business administration students at Niagara University helped hundreds of low-income and elderly taxpayers receive more than half a million dollars in income tax refunds last year, and they’re ready to do it again this year.

James Ingham, an assistant professor of accounting, said 50 to 60 students have completed an Internal Revenue Service training program that enables them to prepare federal and state income tax returns free of charge beginning Tuesday and continuing through early April.

The tax-preparation program, now in its 32nd year at NU, is called Volunteer Income Tax Assistance – or VITA. Ingham said it is a “learn and serve” program aimed mostly at taxpayers with annual incomes of less than $51,000.

“Those with higher incomes usually can afford to pay professional tax preparers,” he explained. “It’s wonderful to offer this service to people who may not be able to afford a professional accountant, and it gives our students an opportunity to apply the knowledge they’ve acquired in the classroom to the real world.”

Last year, the first year Ingham was coordinator of the program at NU, 77 students helped residents file 479 tax returns. More than $575,000 was returned to those residents in federal and state refunds.

“When we talk about creating an educational environment that is enhanced through service and experimental learning, this is exactly what we mean,” said Ingham, a certified public accountant with a master’s degree in business administration.

Under the program, NU students prepare and electronically file the federal and state tax returns, and the refund checks are sent to the taxpayers or are deposited directly into their bank accounts. Ingham said electronic filing and direct deposit provide faster refunds than those for people who file paper returns by mail.

The program is coordinated by members of Beta Alpha Psi, the honor society for accounting, and the college’s Accounting Society. It has received national accolades from Beta Alpha Psi, which has more than 300,000 members in 300 chapters on college and university campuses around the world.

Ingham said some clients of the NU program “have been coming to us for years” and that the experience and training the students get in the College of Business Administration results in “a very high rate of placement in jobs” in their fields when they graduate.

No appointments are necessary for taxpayers seeking help, and the students serve them on a first-come, first-served basis.

Sessions are held both on the NU campus, 5795 Lewiston Road near the Niagara Falls north city line, and at the Doris W. Jones Family Resource Building, 3001 Ninth St., Niagara Falls.

The sessions are offered from 5:45 to 7:30 p.m. in Room 207 of St. Vincent’s Hall on the NU campus on Tuesday, Thursday and Feb. 19, 21, 26 and 28; March 12, 14, 19, 21 and 26; and April 2 and 4.

Sessions also are offered from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. in the Jones Family Resource Building on Wednesday, Feb. 20 and 27, and March 13, 20 and 27.