College Tax Credits: Parent & Student Primer

Parents and students, by now, you’re certainly in the full chaos of the academic year – spending that hard-earned money to help your child get the education necessary to pursue a great future career. Before too long, you’ll also be working through the challenges of gathering information and documents for tax return filing season – and by then you’ll be keenly aware of just how much you’re spending to obtain that all-important college degree. Likewise around tax filing time, you will probably be searching for and considering what summer jobs, internships, or other opportunities may be available to help pay for or defray some of the cost of college now, or at least help bolster your child’s prospects for future employment to repay college debt.

While the cost of college education can definitely be burdensome, and tax season is a drag for most, there are some federal tax provisions that can help relieve some of that burden and make you excited (ok, maybe just less anxious!) about tax season. That’s why this article is dedicated to summarizing the most useful information regarding available college tax credits for parents and students.

Biz&TaxHax Tip: Biz&TaxHax hopes this article proves useful in your quest to save money on, and make the most of, your education. In that spirit, we also want to be sure to introduce you to our friends and colleagues at Nunan Vogel Rowe (NVR), who are experts in career coaching, especially college-to-career coaching. Biz&TaxHax likes to team with like-minded professionals to bring you the most relevant, useful information to help you plan and find solutions to your challenges. NVR is certainly a golden resource for students and their parents navigate the key planning and decision-making that makes all the difference in future career prospects. To do this, NVR’s leaders draw on their experiences as big-company executives with strong backgrounds in identifying, recruiting, evaluating, and developing the best talent in industry. Simply put, they’ve been there and done that one-thousand times over, and can help you tremendously.

Available College Tax Credits & General Requirements

There are two college tax credits available, these are the:

  1. American Opportunity Tax Credit; and
  1. Lifetime Learning Credit.

Each of these education tax credits has its own specific requirements, but both share the following general requirements:

  1. You, your dependent or a third party paid qualified education expenses during the tax year for,
  1. An eligible student who was enrolled at an eligible educational institution, and
  1. You, your spouse, or a dependent listed on your tax return is the eligible student.

Generally, these education tax credits exist for eligible students attending an eligible college, university, or vocational school, and the amount of credit allowed is limited based on the amount of eligible expenses and taxpayer’s income level. Although a particular taxpayer will often qualify for both the American Opportunity Tax Credit and the Lifetime Learning Credit, a taxpayer may only claim one of these credits for a given tax year.

 American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC)

The American Opportunity Tax Credit is available to any taxpayer who pays qualified expenses for an eligible student. A taxpayer, the taxpayer’s spouse, or the taxpayer’s dependents can all be eligible students, and the American Opportunity Tax Credit allows a credit for each eligible student. A substantial number of taxpayers who are eligible for the American Opportunity Tax Credit will qualify for the $2,500 maximum credit amount, which is a per year, per student maximum. But, it is important to keep in mind that a taxpayer can only claim this credit for four tax years for each eligible student, and only for eligible students who have not completed their first four years of college education prior to 2016.

Biz&TaxHax Tips: In considering whether you may be able to claim the American Opportunity Tax Credit, the following are important points to keep in mind, but you should always contact an experienced tax attorney or tax consultant to fully discuss your facts and circumstances and help make this determination:

  1. Qualified Education Expenses: Tuition, fees, and certain other expenses that are required for enrollment or attendance at an eligible educational institution constitute qualified education expenses. Common other expenses that qualify are expenses for books, supplies, and equipment that are needed for a course of study. Some types of expenses that do not qualify are: insurance, medical expenses (including student health fees), room and board, transportation, or similar personal, living, or family expenses.
  1. Credit Amount: To claim the full $2,500 tax credit, your qualified expenses for an eligible student must be $4,000 or more (and you must not be limited by income-level).
  1. 40% Refundable: The American Opportunity Tax Credit is 40% refundable, meaning that even if you owe no federal income tax, you may be able to claim up to $1,000 in refund for each eligible student (again, subject to income-level limits and the amount spent on qualified educational expenses).
  1. Income Limits: For 2016, single taxpayers with a modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) of $80,000 or less, and married taxpayers filing jointly with a MAGI of $160,000 or less, may claim the full $2,500 credit (again, assuming enough qualified educational expenses to support it). This credit phases out as the various types of taxpayers’ incomes rise above these levels, and the credit vanishes when MAGI is $90,000 (single, head of household, some widows and widowers) or $180,000 (married filing jointly).

Lifetime Learning Credit

Undergraduate and graduate students alike are eligible for the Lifetime Learning Credit, which provides a tax benefit of up to $2,000 per tax return (rather than per student, like the AOTC). Another important distinction between the Lifetime Learning Credit and the AOTC is that the Lifetime Learning Credit is not refundable, meaning that a taxpayer with no tax liability will not receive a refund for the amount of this tax credit that he or she is eligible to claim. But, one positive difference with the Lifetime Learning Credit is that a student need not be a half-time student at the eligible educational institution to qualify; rather, the student can be pursuing a course of study part-time to maintain or improve job skills or as part of a degree program at an eligible educational institution.

Biz&TaxHax Tips: If you are evaluating whether you may qualify to claim the Lifetime Learning Credit, these are some helpful tips to discuss with a tax lawyer or tax consultant, who can help you analyze eligibility and claim the credit:

  1. Qualified Education Expenses: Qualified education expenses include tuition and fees required for enrollment or attendance at the eligible educational institution, and other fees required for coursework there. Any additional expenses do not qualify.
  1. Credit Amount: The maximum amount of the credit is $2,000, and the credit is calculated as a percentage (20%) of eligible expenses for all eligible students listed on the return. So, to claim the maximum credit, a taxpayer must have paid at least $10,000 in qualified expenses for the year.
  1. Income Limits: Single taxpayers with MAGI of $55,000 or less, and married couples filing jointly having a MAGI of $111,000 or less, may claim the full Lifetime Learning Credit for 2016. The credit diminishes as income levels rise, and it vanishes at $65,000 (single, head of household, some widows and widowers) and $131,000 (joint filers) of MAGI.

Other Education-Related Tax Benefits

Even if you do not qualify for one of the college tax credits, you may be able to benefit from one of the following other education-related tax benefits:

  1. Grants for Scholarship and Fellowship, which are usually tax-free if they are used to pay for tuition, required fees, books, and other course materials, but are taxable if applied to room, board, research, travel, or other expenses.
  2. Deduction for Tuition and Fees
  3. Deduction for Student Loan Interest (up to $2,500/year, depending on amount of interest paid and income level).
  4. College Savings Bonds, the interest on which is generally tax-free depending on the taxpayer’s income level, the time of purchase, and taxpayer’s age at the time of purchase.
  5. QTPs (Qualified Tuition Programs) such as a 529 Plan.

As always, for parents and students considering eligibility for college tax credits like the American Opportunity Tax Credit and Lifetime Learning Credit, or other education-related tax benefits, as well as related planning, reporting and payment obligations, it is best to consult an experienced tax attorney or tax consultant. A tax lawyer or tax consultant can fully evaluate your facts and circumstances along with applicable law and guidance to develop the most effective, efficient, and proper solution to your tax compliance and planning needs.