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Education Tax Benefits

Locke's Some Thoughts on Education

Going to college can be a stressful time for students and parents. Some of the costs of your education can be offset by tax credits and reductions to income.  These credits and reductions can be complicated, so it takes a bit of coordination to keep things straight. 

More than one education tax benefit may be taken in one year, but generally the expenses must be segregated from one another in your reporting.  In other words, you couldn’t take two tax benefits based upon the exact same education expenses, with some exceptions.  For example, you can use most qualified expenses for the tax credits and apply the expense toward eliminating the 10% penalty on IRA distributions at the same time.

Generally though, most tax benefits for education can only be applied once to each expense.  Only one of the following credits may be used per student in any given year: American Opportunity Tax Credit, Lifetime Learning Credit, or Tuition and Fees Deduction.  If you have enough students with the appropriate circumstances, it is feasible that you could use all three types of benefit in a single tax year.

Listed below are the three primary tax benefits and the specifics around them:

  • American Opportunity Tax Credit.  This credit can be up to $2,500 per eligible student. The AOTC is available for the first four years of post secondary education. Forty percent of the credit is refundable. That means that you may be able to receive up to $1,000 of the credit as a refund, even if you don’t owe any taxes. Qualified expenses include tuition and fees, course related books, supplies and equipment.

    There are income limitations on this credit. Generally, your Modified Adjusted Gross Income must be less than $80,000 (if single) or $160,000 (if married) to claim the full credit. The credit is phased out above those levels and eliminated at $90,000 and $180,000 respectively.

    The AOTC is not allowed if you file Married Filing Separately, or if you are claimed as a dependent on another taxpayer’s return. In addition, the credit is not refundable if you are under age 24 and are essentially dependent upon your parents (that is, they are alive) and you are unmarried. If you are under age 18 none of the credit is refundable.

  • Lifetime Learning Credit.  With the LLC, you may be able to claim up to $2,000 for qualified education expenses on your federal tax return. There is no limit on the number of years you can claim this credit for an eligible student. The credit is 20% of the first $10,000 of education expenses for the student.

    This credit has income limitations as well. If your Modified AGI is less than $53,000 (single) or $107,000 (married filing jointly) the credit is fully available. The phaseout occurs at $63,000 and $127,000 respectively. Again, you are not allowed to use this credit if you file Married Filing Separately, or are the dependent of another taxpayer.

  • Tuition and Fees deduction. This benefit provides a reduction in your Adjusted Gross Income of up to $4,000 for modified AGI less than $65,000 (single) or $130,000 (married filing jointly), or $2,000 if your modified AGI is above those limits but less than $80,000 or $160,000 respectively. Above those limits the deduction is not available. Like the other benefits, the Tuition and Fees deduction is not available if filing MFS or you are the dependent of another taxpayer.

    One difference with this deduction is that you can include course materials in the deduction only if purchased directly from the educational institution (other benefits allow any source of purchase of course materials).

  • Student loan interest deduction. Other than home mortgage interest, you generally can’t deduct the interest you pay. However, you may be able to deduct interest you pay on a qualified student loan. The deduction can reduce your taxable income by up to $2,500. You don’t need to itemize deductions to claim it.


  1. […] Education Tax Benefits from Jim Blankenship […]

  2. Wilda says:

    Jim – This is great information but what if you don’t have access to past tax returns and you aren’t sure what the student or parents claimed in past years? They aren’t sure either. Would a strategy be to claim the credits and then see what the IRS allows?

    1. jblankenship says:

      I’d look at the transcripts from the IRS if you have no other means. I would not recommend just trying it to see what the IRS allows, especially if there’s a good chance that they’ve used the credit previously (e.g., the student is in the fifth year of school).

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