SANTA MONICA, Calif. -- For the second year in a row, Cesar Rubio, professor of accounting at Santa Monica College, headed up the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program, which provides free tax preparation for lower income families and also helps students get training in tax prep.

“I realized that a lot of the students were actually coming to the workforce without the skills,” said Rubio. “They came with the degree, but they didn't come with the skill.”

Run through the Internal Revenue Service, the program is designed to help those making $54,000 a year or less file their tax returns. But it also gives students an opportunity for some real-world training. 

“I wanted a program that would help them pass the knowledge that they learned in the classroom and take them into the real situation,” said Rubio. 

Tax preparation can be confusing and expensive and the VITA program gives those in need a full tax return for free. 

“Right now, if you go outside to different tax preparers service,” said SMC accounting student Yin-Chi Kuo, “you have to pay a lot of money to prepare it. And it's good for students to practice when they learn from class and then they can use the experience in real life.”

To ensure that the tax preparations are done correctly, students must pass an IRS certification in class and all returns go through quality control supervised by Rubio himself. 

“Once it's done, then it comes back to him,” explained Manraj Singh, another of the volunteers. “Then he's going to print out the form, E-filing is done. And then we have them sign it and then they're good to go.”

Tax season can be nerve-wracking. An already complicated tax code and frequent changes leave people nervous about the possible financial impacts. 

“We want to cure that by actually providing the tax return preparation at no cost,” said Rubio. “And then at the same time, we educate them, telling them you know, 'this is what's happening to your returns.' If they're not sure about what they're reading, then it's our job to let them know what it means.”

Rubio said the community response has been overwhelmingly positive. One woman came in because she couldn't apply for her government assistance until her taxes were filed. 

“She was just thrilled, she was just excited that now she could apply for financial assistance because her tax returns were filed,” said Rubio.

The program is in its second year and Rubio says the number of people served has almost doubled since last year.