If you're in college, finished with college, planning to attend college, or paying for someone who is a college student, there are several tax breaks you may qualify for. However, every tax break for education-related expenses or savings is subject to certain conditions. Here's a rundown of the tax breaks available, and how to determine whether or not you qualify.
Credits and deductions for tuition, fees, and other expenses
If you pay tuition or other qualifying higher-education expenses, such as fees, books, and required supplies in 2016, there are three possible tax breaks you could qualify for. Eligibility depends on income and the student's enrollment status. Listed in order from most valuable to least, they are:
American Opportunity Credit: This is worth up to $2,500 per year, but the catch is that it's only available if the student is in his or her first four years of postsecondary education and enrolled at least half-time. The credit is calculated as 100% of the first $2,000 in qualified expenses, and 25% of the next $2,000. In other words, if you pay $4,000 in tuition this year, this credit reimburses you for all but $1,500. The full credit is available for taxpayers with modified adjusted gross income up to $80,000 (single) or $160,000 (married filing jointly), and a partial credit can be claimed with MAGI up to $90,000 and $180,000, respectively.
Lifetime Learning Credit: Worth up to $2,000 per year, but is calculated as 20% of the first $10,000 in expenses, so you have to spend more to take full advantage of this one. However, there is no degree program or enrollment requirement to be eligible -- you'll just need a MAGI less than $55,000 (single) or $110,000 (married filing jointly).
Tuition and Fees Deduction: Can reduce your income subject to tax by up to $4,000 (not a credit), and is generally used by taxpayers who don't qualify for either of the credits. The deduction has more generous income thresholds than the Lifetime Learning Credit, with a phaseout beginning at a MAGI of $65,000 (single) or $130,000 (married filing jointly).
Student loan interest
Student loan debt has risen substantially over the past several decades, and is the second-largest form of debt in the U.S -- even larger than credit card debt. However, student loan debt is a different kind of debt. There are several repayment options to choose from, grace periods, the ability to suspend payment without penalty, and even the opportunity for loan forgiveness in many cases.
There is also a nice tax break that student loan borrowers can take advantage of. As of 2016, borrowers can deduct up to $2,500 worth of student loan interest they've paid throughout the year, and this can be done even if the taxpayer doesn't itemize deductions. This deduction is subject to MAGI limits of $65,000 (single filers) and $130,000 (married taxpayers filing jointly).
Are scholarships taxable?
The short answer is "not usually." Scholarships, as well as other forms of tuition help such as employer-paid tuition assistance, can be tax-free.
However, in order for the funds not to count as taxable income, the recipient needs to be a degree candidate at an eligible institution. And the money needs to be used for qualifying expenses, such as tuition, fees, books, and other supplies required for attendance.
If the funds are used for room and board, travel to and from school, or any other purpose, they can be considered taxable income. And tax-free tuition assistance from your employer is capped at $5,250 per year, regardless of what the money is used for.
Tax breaks for savers
Finally, one of the biggest tax breaks involves saving for college, either for yourself or a loved one. Two of the most popular ways to save for education are the 529 Savings Plan and the Coverdell Education Savings Account, or ESA.
529 Savings Plans work like Roth IRAs in the sense that contributions are not deductible in the year in which they're made, but withdrawals for qualified higher education expenses are tax-free. Contribution limits are rather high, and investment choices look like those of most 401(k)s -- a basket of mutual funds for varying investment objectives and risk tolerances. 529 Plans are run by the individual states, and while you don't necessarily have to choose your home state's plan, it may be eligible for additional state tax incentives, so it's important to do some research. Here's a good resource to compare the various 529 plans available.
A Coverdell ESA has a similar tax structure, but there are a few notable differences from the 529. Contribution limits are much lower ($2,000 per year), but there is a much wider range of investment options, such as stocks and bonds. And Coverdell funds can be used for any level of qualifying educational expenses -- not just college. So, if you plan on sending your kids to a private high school, a Coverdell can help you pay for it.
It's also important to mention that unused funds can be easily transferred to another beneficiary. So, if your child doesn't go to college or doesn't spend the entire balance, you can transfer the money for another child's, or another loved one's, use.
Use a combination of these tax breaks for maximum savings
There are tax breaks for before, during, and after college, and you can use them in combination to produce major savings. For example, you can invest money in a 529 and withdraw your investment profits tax-free to pay tuition and other expenses. Then, you can potentially qualify for a credit on income that was already tax-free, reaping a double benefit for your college saving.
Don't get me wrong -- I'm fully aware that college has gotten rather expensive in recent history. However, my goal is to make you fully aware of the benefits to which you may be entitled to take away some of the financial sting of higher education.