Tax Refund


School tuition and related fees, especially paying for college and a postgraduate degree, can be expensive. However, the tax code provides some relief via education tax credits and deductions to combat the ever-increasing price of these costs. You may be able to deduct qualified expenses paid during the year for yourself, your spouse, or your dependent. 

Federal education tax deductions and credits focus on postsecondary education. If you have a child between kindergarten and high school, you may have to check with your state to find other benefits or financial aid options.

For now, let’s focus on higher education and how paying for undergraduate, graduate, professional degrees and courses to improve or acquire job skills might impact your taxes. 

Education Tax Credits Explained

Any education credit helps reduce the amount owed on your tax return. That means they don’t directly pay your education expenses or student loan interest; instead, they take into account that you’re paying these fees and give you “tax breaks.”

Here’s the background on education credits:

Eligibility Criteria

According to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), not everyone is eligible to claim an education credit. You must be able to check all of these boxes:

  • You, your dependent or a third party pay qualified expenses.
  • The student is enrolled at an eligible educational institution.
  • The student is you, your spouse or a dependent on your tax return.

Qualified Expenses 

A qualified educational expense can be anything from tuition to required campus fees. Depending on the credit you claim, you may be able to include the cost of books, supplies and equipment, too. These expenses qualify whether you pay for them with cash/check/card or a loan.

Qualified Educational Institutions

A student needs a Form 1098-T showing they attend a qualifying college. Most accredited institutions count, such as public, nonprofit, and privately-owned for-profit schools. This includes:

  • Colleges.
  • Universities.
  • Trade schools.
  • Postsecondary educational programs.

Top Education Tax Credits

The two education tax credits available are the American Opportunity Tax Credit and the Lifetime Learning Credit.

American Opportunity Tax Credit 

The American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC) is available to a large number of taxpayers. To claim the full credit, your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) must be $80,000 or less (or $160,000 or less if you’re married filing jointly). You will receive a reduced amount of the credit if your MAGI is over $80,000 but more than $90,000 individually (over $160,000 but less than $180,000 married filing jointly). You can get a maximum credit of $2,500 for each qualifying student. 

To be a qualifying student to claim AOTC, the student must meet the following criteria: 

  • Be enrolled at least half-time for a minimum of one academic period beginning in that tax year. An academic period could be a semester, trimester, quarter, or even a summer school session.  
  • Pursue a degree or some recognized education credential if they want to claim this credit. 
  • Be in the first four years of higher education. 
  • Not have claimed this credit (or the former Hope credit) for more than four tax years. 
  • Cannot have a felony drug conviction at the end of the tax year. 

The credit is calculated based on a maximum of the first $4,000 worth of qualified education expenses per eligible student. The amount of credit is 100% of the first $2,000 you spend on qualified education expenses you paid for each eligible student. For the next $2,000 you spend on qualified education expenses, 25% is covered by the AOTC credit for a maximum total credit of $2,500. This applies to each eligible student — so if you’re a parent with multiple kids in college, you can claim the credit for each one. 

Better yet, part of this tax credit is refundable, meaning it can actually pay you by increasing your tax refund. If the credit brings your taxes owed down to zero, you can get 40% of any remaining amount of the credit added to your refund up to $1,000.

Tip: Remember that you may be able to claim this credit for up to four tax years for each different student as long as it’s for different eligible education expenses. That’s one more reason it’s helpful to keep track of your paperwork, especially Forms 1098-E and 1098-T.

Lifetime Learning Tax Credit

Unlike the American Opportunity Tax Credit, you can claim the Lifetime Learning Credit for as many years as you pay qualifying expenses for undergraduate, graduate, professional degree courses and courses to improve or acquire job skills.  While there is no limit on the number of years you can claim this credit on your tax return, it is worth up to $2,000 per tax return. 

Tip: While you can claim both of these tax credits on the same tax return, it can not be for the same student or the same qualified expenses. TurboTax will help you determine which education credits you qualify for depending on your tax situation. 

Education Tax Deductions and Expenses

Although education tax credits are a golden opportunity to get a break from those college fees, you have other options, too — especially when it comes to loans and interest. Here are a few tax breaks you might qualify for:

Student Loan Interest Deduction

The federal government allows you to deduct up to $2,500 of the interest you repaid on your student loans. Better yet, you can do that each year. You’re only eligible for the deduction if your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) is less than $85,000 for single filers and $175,000 if married filing joint.

You will not be able to qualify for a student loan interest deduction if you are married and filing separately. 

Tip: Keep good records of all your expenses and spending over the tax year. This makes it easier to get the credits you deserve.

Tuition Reimbursement

If you’re a student with a job, you might have a leg up. Ask your employer if you are eligible for tuition reimbursement from your company.

Take Advantage of Your Education

Pursuing postsecondary education is a big step — and often a pricey one. Fortunately, you can take qualified tuition and related expenses down a peg with a few well-chosen credits, deductions and tax breaks.

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