Your Child's Education: How To Finance It
How can you properly fund your children's education without draining your current cash flow? What should you do if they are a few years away from college and your education fund won't be enough? How can you increase your chances of getting financial aid? What tax benefits might be available to you? This Financial Guide answers these questions.
With the costs of a college education rising every year, the keys to funding your child's education are to plan early and invest shrewdly. However, there are steps you can take if you get a late start. Moreover, there are a number of effective techniques for increasing financial aid opportunities and reducing taxes.
According to the College Board, the annual increase in inflation-adjusted average tuition and fees at public four-year colleges and universities has declined in each of the past five years, from 9.5% in 2009‑10 to 0.9% in 2013-14. Despite the decline, college is still expensive and proper planning can lessen the financial squeeze considerably--especially if you start when your child is young. It should also be noted that in 2012-13 the average amount of aid for a full-time undergraduate student was about $13,370.
Here are some guidelines--geared to parents whose children are no older than elementary school age--for funding your child's education.
Start Saving Early
We cannot emphasize enough that getting an early start is basic to funding your child's education. The earlier you start, the more you'll benefit from the compounding of interest.
Planning Aid: For an estimate of the amount of money you would have at the time your child enters college if you begin saving now, see the Financial Calculator: College Savings Calculator.
When should you start saving? This depends on how much you think your children's education will cost. The best way is to start saving before they are born. The sooner you begin, the less money you will have to put away each year.
Example: Suppose you have one child, age six months, and you estimate that you'll need $120,000 to finance his college education 18 years from now. If you start putting away money immediately, you'll need to save $3,500 per year for 18 years (assuming an after-tax return of 7%). On the other hand, if you put off saving until the child is six years old, you'll have to save almost double that amount every year for twelve years.
Another advantage of starting early is that you'll have more flexibility when it comes to the type of investment you'll use. You'll be able to put at least part of your money in equities, which, although riskier in the short-run, are better able to outpace inflation than other investments after time.
Find Out How Much You'll Need To Save
How much will your child's education cost? It depends on whether your child attends a private or state school. In the 2013-2014 school year, the total expenses--tuition, fees, board, personal expenses, and books and supplies--for the average private college are about $40,917 per year and about $18,391 per year for the average public college. However, these amounts are averages: the tuition, fees, and board for some private colleges can cost more than $55,000 per year, whereas the costs for a state school can be kept under $10,000 per year.
Planning Aid: Use College Search, a database of over 3,200 two-and four-year colleges, to find and select the best colleges for your child.
Don't forget to add the costs of graduate or professional school to the amount your child will need.
Planning Aid: If you're trying to estimate future costs, you can estimate that school costs will grow by about two percentage points above the inflation rate. To be on the safe side, we suggest you assume costs will grow by at least 7% per year. For the most recent increases, refer to 2013 Trends in College Pricing.
Choose Your Investments
As with any investment, you should choose those that will provide you with a good return and that meet your level of risk tolerance. The ones you choose should depend on when you start your savings plan-the mix of investments if you start when your child is a toddler should be different from those used if you start when your child is age 12.
The following are often recommended as investments suitable for education funds:
Series EE Bonds are extremely safe investments. For tax treatment of redemption proceeds used for college, please see the Financial Guide: HIGHER EDUCATION COSTS: How To Get The Best Tax Treatment.
U.S. Government Bonds are also safe investments that offer a relatively higher return. If you use zero-coupon bonds for your child's education, you can time the receipt of the proceeds to fall in the year when you need the money. A drawback of such bonds is that a sale before their maturity date could result in a loss on the investment. Further, the accrued interest is taxable even though you don't receive it until maturity.
CDs are safe, but usually provide a lower return than the rate of inflation. The interest is taxable.
Municipal Bonds, if they are highly rated, can provide an acceptable return from the tax-free interest if you're in the higher income tax brackets. Zero-coupon municipals can be timed to fall due when you need the funds and are useful if you begin saving later in the child's life.
Tip: Be sure to convert the tax-free return quoted by sellers of such bonds into an equivalent taxable return. Otherwise, the quoted return may be misleading. The formula for converting tax-free returns into taxable returns is as follows:
Divide the tax-free return by 1.00 minus your top tax rate to determine the taxable-return equivalent. For example, if the return on municipal bonds is 5% and you are in the 30% tax bracket, the equivalent taxable return is 7.1% (5% divided by 70%).
Stocks contained in an appropriate mutual fund or portfolio can provide you with a higher yield at an acceptable risk level. Stock mutual funds can provide superior returns over the long term. Income and balanced funds can meet the investment needs of those who begin saving when the child is older.
Deferred Annuities provide you with tax deferral, but the yield may not be acceptable because of the relatively high cost of these investments. Further, amounts withdrawn before you reach age 59-1/2 may be subject to a 10% premature withdrawal penalty.
Related Financial Guide: For further information on investing in annuities, please see the Financial Guide: ANNUITIES: How They Work And When You Should Use Them.
If you have insufficient savings for your child's education when he or she is close to entering college, there are ways to generate additional funds both now and when your child is about to enter school:
You can start saving as much as possible during the remaining years. However, unless your income level is high enough to support an extremely stringent savings plan, you will probably fall short of the amount you need.
You can take on a part-time job. However, this will raise your income for purposes of determining whether you are eligible for certain types of student aid. In addition, your child may be able to take on part-time or summer jobs.
You can tap your assets by taking out a home equity loan or a personal loan, selling assets or borrowing from a 401(k) plan.
- You (or your child) can apply for various types of student aid and education loans (discussed below and in Info Sources).
Related Financial Guide: For further information on Equity Loans, please see the Financial Guide: HOME EQUITY LOANS: How To Shop For The One That's Best For You.
Tip: Sources of student aid and education loans should be exhausted before other types of loans are used, since the former make better sense financially. In some cases, however, a home equity loan can be advantageous because of the deductibility of interest.
Here is a summary of the possible sources of financial aid. The types of aid and tax implications change frequently, so consult your financial advisor for specifics when you're approaching the time to seek financial aid.
Grants, the best type of financial aid because they do not have to be paid back, are amounts awarded by governments, schools, and other organizations. Some grants are need-based and others are not.
- Federal Pell Grant Program. Pell grants are need-based.
Tip: Don't assume that middle class families are ineligible for needs-based aid or loans. The assessment of whether a family qualifies as "in need" depends on the cost of the college and the size of the family.
- State education departments may make grants available. Inquiries should be made of the state agency. Employers may provide subsidies.
- Private organizations may provide scholarships. Inquiries should be made at schools.
- Most schools provide aid and scholarships, both needs-based and non-needs-based.
- Military scholarships are available to those who enlist in the Reserves, National Guard, or Reserve Officers Training Corps. Inquiries should be made at the branch of service.
Tip: Try negotiating with your preferred college for additional financial aid, especially if it offers less than a comparable college.
Loans may be need-based, and others are not. Here is a summary of loans:
- Stafford loans (formerly guaranteed student loans) are federally guaranteed and subsidized low-interest loans made by local lenders and the federal government. They are needs-based for subsidized loans; however an unsubsidized version is also available.
- Perkins loans are provided by the federal government and administered by schools. They are needs-based. Inquiries should be made at school aid offices.
- Parent loans for undergraduate students (PLUS) and supplemental loans for students are federally guaranteed loans by local lenders to parents, not students. Inquiries should be made at college aid offices or by calling 800-333-4636.
- Schools themselves may provide student loans. Inquiries should be made at the school.
Work-Study Programs. This is a program that is federally funded and based on the family's financial need. The student works on-campus and receives partly subsidized pay. The receipt of work-study funds does not affect the level of "need" for purposes of need-based grants and loans.
To make a thorough investigation, you should fill out the financial aid application, which you can obtain from the school's financial aid office. You will have to provide tax returns. The amount you are determined to be eligible for depends on your income, the size of your family, the number of family members currently attending college, and your assets.
Related Financial Guide: For information on Equity Loans, please see the Financial Guide: HOME EQUITY LOANS: How To Shop For The One That's Best For You.
How To Increase The Amount Of Financial Aid
Here are some strategies that may increase the amount of aid for which your family is eligible:
- Try to avoid putting assets in your child's name. As a general rule, education funds should be kept in the parents' names, since investments in a child's name can impact negatively on aid eligibility. For example, the rules for determining financial aid decrease the amount of aid for which a child is eligible by 35% of assets the child owns and by 50% of the child's income.
Example: If your child owns $1,000 worth of stock, the amount of aid for which he or she is eligible for is reduced by $350. On the other hand, the amount of aid is reduced by (effectively) only 5.6% of your assets and from 22 to 47% of your income.
- Reduce your income. Income for financial aid purposes is generally determined based upon your previous year's income tax situation. Therefore, in the years immediately prior to and during college, try to reduce your taxable income. Some ways to do this include:
- Defer capital gains.
- Sell losing investments.
- Reduce the income from your business. If you are the owner of your own business, you may be able to reduce your taxable income by taking a lower salary, deferring bonuses, etc.
- Avoid distributions from retirement plans or IRAs in these years.
- Pay your federal and state taxes during the year in the form of estimated payments rather than waiting until April 15 of the following year.
- Since a portion of discretionary assets is included in the family's expected contribution from income, reduce discretionary assets by paying off credit cards and other consumer loans.
- Take advantage of vehicles which defer income, such as 401(k) plans, other retirement plans or annuities.
Detail your financial hardships. If you have any financial hardships, let the deciding authorities know (via the statement of financial need) exactly what they are, if they are not clear on the application. The financial aid officer may be able to assist you in explaining hardships.
- Are at least 24 years old by the end of the year for which they are applying for aid,
- Are veterans,
- Have dependents other than their spouse,
- Are wards of the court or both parents are deceased,
- Are graduate or professional students or
- Are married and are not claimed as dependents on their parents' returns.
As noted above, education funds should generally be kept in the parents' names because of financial-aid considerations. However, in specific cases, it may be better to keep the investments in your child's name since the tax rate on the income will be less than if they are held in your name. Professional advice should be sought in making this decision.
In the past, parents would invest in the child's name in order to shift income to the lower-bracket child. However, the addition of the "kiddie tax" mostly put an end to that strategy. Now, investment income over $2,000 for 2014 (same as 2013) of children under the age of 19 (or 24 if a full time student) is taxed at the parents' rate. (This threshold is indexed annually for inflation.) Once the child reaches age 19, however, all income is taxed at the child's rate. Of this $2,000, one-half probably won't be taxed due to the availability of the standard deduction while the other half would be taxed at the child's rate.
Note: These rules apply to unearned income. If a child has earned income, this amount is always taxed at the child's rate. If you decide to invest in your child's name, here are some tax strategies to consider:
- You can shift just enough assets to create $2,000 in taxable income to an under-19 child.
- You can buy U.S. Savings Bonds (in the child's name) scheduled to mature after your child reaches age 19.
- You can invest in equities that pay small dividends but have a lot of potential for appreciation. The income earned when your child is under the age of 19 will be minimal, and the growth in the stocks will occur over the long term.
- If you own a family business, you can employ your child in the business. Earned income is not subject to the "kiddie-tax," and is deductible by the business if the child is performing a legitimate function. Additionally, if your business is a sole proprietorship and your child is under the age of 19, then he or she will not pay social security taxes on the income.
Note: The Kiddie Tax does not apply if the earned income of a student over age 18 exceeds half of the child's living expenses. Living expenses include food, housing, clothing, medical, dental, education and other necessary costs of support. Students over 18 are considered independent from their parents if they provide more than 50% of their own support.
There are also a number of tax incentives that you might be able to take advantage of. Please see the Financial Guide: HIGHER EDUCATION COSTS: How To Get The Best Tax Treatment.
Tip: Reporting the kiddie tax on the child's return using the required Form 8615 calls for showing the parents' taxable income. A parent reluctant to show that item to a teenager may instead report the child's investment income of the parent's return, on Form 8814. But this is not allowed, and the Form 8615 route must be followed, where the child has taxable earned income, as many teenagers would.
- U.S. Department of Education (for information on financial aid): 1-800-USA-LEARN (1-800-872-5327)
Higher Education Costs: How To Get The Best Tax Treatment
Various tax benefits, including tax exemption, tax deferral, tax credits, and deductions, are available if you are paying or saving for college or other higher education costs. This Guide suggests ways to take advantage of these benefits.
Many tax benefits are available to help you pay higher education costs, whether for your children or yourself. Because of the variety of benefits and programs, this area is one of the most complex that an individual can face. This Financial Guide discusses strategies you can use to build savings for higher education, and tax credits currently available to help ease the financial burden of paying for education.
Eligibility rules vary for education credits and savings plans and most are subject to income limitations.
Related Financial Guide: For more information about saving and investing to cover education costs, please see the Financial Guide: YOUR CHILD'S EDUCATION: How To Finance It.
Starting in 2013, you can contribute up to $2,000 to a Coverdell Education Savings account (a Section 530 program formerly known as an Education IRA) for a child under 18. These contributions are not deductible, but they grow tax-free until withdrawn. Contributions for any year, for example 2013 can be made through the (un-extended) due date for the return for that year (April 15, 2014).
Note: There is no adjustment for inflation; therefore the $2,000 contribution limit is expected to remain at $2,000 for tax years 2012 and beyond.
Only cash can be contributed to a Section 530 account and you cannot contribute to the account after the child reaches his or her 18th birthday.
Anyone can establish and contribute to a Section 530 account, including the child. You may establish 530s for as many children as you wish, but the amount contributed during the year to each account cannot exceed $2,000. The child need not be a dependent, and in fact does not even need to be related to you. The maximum contribution amount for each child is subject to a phase out limitation with a modified AGI between $190,000 and $220,000 for joint filers and $95,000 and $110,000 for single filers.
Note: A 6 percent excise tax (to be paid by the beneficiary) applies to excess contributions. These are amounts in excess of the applicable contribution limit ($2,000 or phase out amount) and contributions for a year that amounts are contributed to a qualified tuition program for the same child. A qualified tuition program (QTP), sometimes called a Section 529 program, is a tax-favored state program to prepay education costs (see below). The 6 percent tax continues for each year the excess contribution stays in the 530 account.
The child must be named (designated as beneficiary) in the Coverdell document, but the beneficiary can be changed to another family member (for example, to a sibling where the first beneficiary gets a scholarship or drops out). And funds can be rolled over tax-free from one child's account to another's. Funds must be distributed not later than 30 days after the beneficiary's 30th birthday (or 20 days after the beneficiary's death if earlier). For "special needs" beneficiaries the age limits (no contributions after age 18, distribution by age 30) don't apply.
Withdrawals are taxable to the person who gets the money, with these major exceptions: Only the earnings portion is taxable (the contributions come back tax-free). Also, even that part isn't taxable income, as long as the amount withdrawn doesn't exceed a child's "qualified higher education expenses" for that year. The definition of "qualified higher education expenses" includes room and board and books, as well as tuition. In figuring whether withdrawals exceed qualified expenses, expenses are reduced by certain scholarships and by amounts for which tax credits (see Educational Credits, below) are allowed. If the amount withdrawn for the year exceeds the education expenses for the year, the excess is partly taxable under a complex formula. There's another formula if the sum of withdrawals from this 530 program and from the qualified tuition (Section 529) program exceed education expenses.
As the person who sets up the Section 530 account, you may change the beneficiary (the child who will get the funds) or roll the funds over to the account of a new beneficiary, tax-free, if the new beneficiary is a member of your family. But funds you take back (for example, withdrawal in a year when there are no qualified higher education expenses, because the child is not enrolled in higher education) are taxable to you, to the extent of earnings on your contributions, and you will generally have to pay an additional 10 percent tax on the taxable amount. However, you won't owe tax on earnings on amounts contributed that are returned to you by June 1 of the year following contribution.
In contrast to Section 529 programs and Series EE bonds, you are able to choose and change Section 530 investments as you see fit.
Tip: Check with your financial adviser about using both the Section 530 program, which has wide investment options but limited ($2,000 or less) contribution/investment amounts, and the Section 529 program, which has limited investment options but allows higher contribution/investment amounts.
Elementary and secondary schools
Section 530 programs can be used to build up funds for primary and secondary education. The tax rules are similar to those for higher education: withdrawals taxable to the extent of earnings on contributions, except tax-free up to the child's qualified elementary and secondary education expenses. These expenses qualify whether the child attends a private, religious or public school. Expenses such as room, board, tuition, transportation and uniforms will qualify only where connected with private or religious schools, but some expenses - books, computers, educational software and internet access - apply as well to children in public school living at home.
The age limits for higher education apply here too: no contribution after child reaches age 18, distribution at age 30 except for special needs beneficiaries. Withdrawals in excess of qualified education expenses are taxable under a special formula.
Every state now has a program allowing persons to prepay for future higher education, with tax relief. There are two basic plan types, with many variations among them:
- The prepaid education arrangement. Here one is essentially buying future education at today's costs, by buying education credits or certificates. This is the older type of program, and tends to limit the student's choice to schools within the state. Private colleges and universities may now offer this type.
- Education savings accounts. Here, contributions are made to an account to be used for future higher education.
In approaching state programs one must distinguish between what the federal tax law allows and what an individual state's program may impose.
You may open a Section 529 program in any state, but when buying prepaid tuition credits (less popular than savings accounts), you will want to know to what institutions the credits will be applied.
Unlike certain other tax-favored higher education programs, such as the American Opportunity Tax Credit (formerly the Hope Credit) and Lifetime Learning tax credits, federal tax law doesn't limit the benefit to tuition, but can also extend it to room, board, and books (individual state programs could be narrower).
The two key individual parties to the program are the Designated Beneficiary (the student-to-be) and the Account Owner, who is entitled to choose and change the beneficiary and who is normally the principal contributor to the program. There are no income limits on who may be an account owner. There's only one designated beneficiary per account. Thus, a parent with three college-bound children might set up 3 accounts. (Some state programs don't allow the same person to be both beneficiary and account owner.)
Contributions must be in cash, and must not total more than reasonably needed for higher education (as determined initially by the state). Neither account owner nor beneficiary may direct investments, but the state may allow the owner to select a type of investment fund (e.g., fixed income securities), and to change the investment annually, and when the beneficiary is changed. The account owner decides who gets the funds (can pick and change the beneficiary) and is legally allowed to withdraw funds at any time, subject to tax and penalty discussed later.
Funds in the account not yet distributed at the account owner's death pass as part of the probate estate under state law-though this is not the result for federal estate tax purposes, see below.
Federal Tax Rules
Income tax. Contributions made by the account owner or other contributor are not deductible for federal income tax purposes. Earnings on contributions grow tax-free while in the program.
Distributions from the fund are tax-free to the extent used for qualified higher education expenses. Distributions used otherwise are taxable to the extent of the portion which represents earnings.
A Section 529 distribution can be tax-free even though the student is claiming an American Opportunity Tax Credit (formerly the Hope Credit) or lifetime learning credit, or tax-free treatment for a Section 530 Coverdell distribution, if the programs aren't covering the same specific expenses.
Distribution for a purpose other than qualified education is taxed to the one getting the distribution. In addition, a 10 percent penalty must be imposed on the taxable portion of the distribution, comparable to the 10 percent penalty in Section 530 Coverdell plans.
The account owner may change beneficiary designation from one to another in the same family. Funds in the account roll over tax-free for the benefit of the new beneficiary.
Gift Tax. For gift tax purposes, contributions are treated as completed gifts even though the account owner has the right to withdraw them. Thus they qualify for the up-to-$14,000 annual gift tax exclusion in 2014 (same as 2013). One contributing more than $14,000 may elect to treat the gift as made in equal installments over the year of gift and the following 4 years, so that up to $56,000 can be given tax-free in the first year.
A rollover from one beneficiary to another in a younger generation is treated as a gift from the first beneficiary, an odd result for an act the "giver" may have had nothing to do with.
Estate tax. Funds in the account at the designated beneficiary's death are included in the beneficiary's estate, another odd result, since those funds may not be available to pay the tax. Funds in the account at the account owner's death are not included in the owner's estate, except for a portion thereof where the gift tax exclusion installment election is made for gifts over $14,000. For example, if the account owner made the election for a gift of $56,000 in 2013, a part of that gift is included in the estate if he or she dies within 5 years.
Tip: A Section 529 program can be an especially attractive estate-planning move for grandparents. There are no income limits, the account owner giving up to $56,000 avoids gift tax, and estate tax by living 5 years after the gift, yet has the power to change the beneficiary.
State Tax: State tax rules are all over the map. Some reflect the federal rules, some quite different rules. For specifics of each state's program, see College Savings Plans Network (CSPN).
Professional guidance: Considering the wide differences among state plans, the federal and state tax issues, and the dollar amounts at stake, professional tax guidance is advised.
You can use a traditional IRA or Roth IRA as a savings plan to pay qualified higher education expenses. Withdrawals before age 59 1/2 to pay qualified higher education expenses are not subject to the additional tax on early withdrawals. To escape the 10 percent tax however, you must pay education costs that at least equal your withdrawal amount. The education costs must be "qualified", that is, used for tuition, fees, books, room and board, supplies, or equipment at a qualified institution of learning and they must be for yourself, your spouse, or the children or grandchildren or yourself or your spouse. The qualified institution of learning may be any college, university, vocational school, or other post-secondary school that is eligible to participate in federal Department of Education aid programs.
Tip: You do not actually have to use the IRA funds to pay education costs. That is, the tax relief doesn't require you to trace the IRA withdrawal dollars to a specific education expense payment. You can pay the costs with your own earnings or savings, with a loan, or with a gift or inheritance received by the student or the person making the withdrawal. You can use savings accumulated in a Section 529 (state sponsored) program.
However, you cannot count education costs paid with proceeds from the following in determining whether your IRA withdrawal is to be free of the 10 percent tax:
- Tax-free distributions from a Coverdell education savings account (Section 530 program);
- Tax-free scholarships, such as a Pell grant;
- Tax-free employer education assistance program;
- Any tax-free payment (other than a gift or bequest) that is due to enrollment at the qualified institution.
You can exclude from your gross income interest on qualified U.S. savings bonds if you have qualified higher education expenses during the year in which you redeem the bonds. In 2014, the exclusion begins phasing out at $76,000 modified adjusted gross income and is eliminated for adjusted gross incomes of more than $91,000. For married taxpayers filing jointly, the tax exclusion begins to be reduced with a $113,950 modified adjusted gross income and is eliminated for adjusted gross incomes of more than $143,950. The exclusion is unavailable to married filing separately.
The education must be of the bondholder, his or her spouse or dependent. Qualified higher education expenses are tuition and fees, and contributions to Section 529 and 530 programs, reduced for tax-free scholarships and other relief.
A qualified U.S. savings bond means a Series EE bond issued after 1989. The bond must be either in your name or in the names of both you and your spouse, and you must be at least 24 years old before the bond's issue date.
Two tax credits are available for education costs - the American Opportunity Credit (formerly the Hope Credit) and the Lifetime Learning credit. These credits are available only to taxpayers with adjusted gross income below specified amounts (see Income Phase-Outs below).
How These Credits Work
The amount of the credit you can claim depends on (1) how much you pay for qualified tuition and other expenses for students and (2) your adjusted gross income (AGI) for the year.
You must report the eligible student's name and Social Security number on your return to claim the credit. You subtract the credits from your federal income tax. If the credit reduces your tax below zero, you cannot receive the excess as a refund. If you receive a refund of education costs for which you claimed a credit in a later year, you may have to repay ("recapture") the credit.
Caution: If you file married-filing separately, you cannot claim these credits.
Which costs are eligible? Qualifying tuition and related expenses refers to tuition and fees, and course materials required for enrollment or attendance at an eligible education institution. They now include books, supplies and equipment needed for a course of study whether or not the materials must be purchased from the educational institution as a condition of enrollment or attendance.
"Related" expenses do not include room and board, student activities, athletics (other than courses that are part of a degree program), insurance, equipment, transportation, or any personal, living, or family expenses. Student-activity fees are included in qualified education expenses only if the fees must be paid to the institution as a condition of enrollment or attendance. For expenses paid with borrowed funds, count the expenses when they are paid, not when borrowings are repaid.
Tip: If you pay qualified expenses for a school semester that begins in the first three months of the following year, you can use the prepaid amount in figuring your credit.
Example: You pay $1,500 of tuition in December 2014 for the winter 2015 semester, which begins in January 2015. You can use the $1,500 in figuring your 2014 credit. If you paid in January instead, you would take the credit on your 2015 return.
Tip: As future year-end tax planning, this rule gives you a choice of the year to take the credit for academic periods beginning in the first 3 months of the year; pay by December and take the credit this year; pay in January or later and take the credit next year.
Eligible students. You, your spouse, or an eligible dependent (someone for whom you can claim a dependency exemption, including children under age 24 who are full-time students) can be an eligible student for whom the credit can apply. If you claim the student as a dependent, qualifying expenses paid by the student are treated as paid by you, and for your credit purposes are added to expenses you paid. A person claimed as another person's dependent can't claim the credit. The student must be enrolled at an eligible education institution (any accredited public, non-profit or private post-secondary institution eligible to participate in student Department of Education aid programs) for at least one academic period (semester, trimester, etc.) during the year.
No "double-dipping." The tax law says that you can't claim both a credit and a deduction for the same higher education costs. It also says that if you pay education costs with a tax-free scholarship, Pell grant, or employer-provided educational assistance, you cannot claim a credit for those amounts.
Income Limits. To claim the American Opportunity Credit your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) must not exceed $90,000 ($180,000 for joint filers). To claim the Lifetime Learning Credit, MAGI must not exceed $63,000 ($127,000 for joint filers). "Modified AGI" generally means your adjusted gross income. The "modifications" only come into play if you have income earned abroad.
The American Opportunity Tax Credit
The American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOC) was extended through tax year 2017 by the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012. The maximum credit, available only for the first four years of post-secondary education, is $2,500 for tax years 2013 to 2017. You can claim the credit for each eligible student you have for which the credit requirements are met.
Special Qualification Rules. In addition to being an eligible student, he or she:
- Must be enrolled in a program leading to a degree, certificate, or other recognized credential;
- Must be taking at least half of a normal full-time load of courses, for at least one semester or trimester beginning in the year for which the credit is claimed; and
- May not have any drug-related felony convictions.
Amount of credit. The maximum amount of the AOC credit is $2,500. Generally, 40 percent of the AOC is now a refundable credit for most taxpayers, which means that you can receive up to $1,000 even if you owe no taxes.
The Lifetime Learning Credit
You may be able to claim a Lifetime Learning credit of up to $2,000 (20 percent of the first $10,000 of qualified expense) for eligible students (subject to reduction based on your AGI). Only one Lifetime Learning Credit can be taken per tax return, regardless of the number of students in the family.
- The credit can help pay for undergraduate, graduate and professional degree courses, including courses to improve job skills.
- For courses taken to acquire or improve job skills, there are no requirements as to course loads, so that even one or two courses can qualify.
- The number of years for which this credit can be claimed is not limited.
Choosing the Credit. You can't claim both credits for the same person in the same year. But you can claim one credit for one or more family members and the other credit for expenses for one or more others in the same year - for example, an AOC for your child and a lifetime learning credit for yourself.
Electing Not To Take the Credit. There are situations in which the credit is not allowed, or not fully available, if some other education tax benefit is claimed - where the higher education expense deduction is claimed for the same student, see below, or where credit and tax exemption (under a Section 529 or 530 program) are claimed for the same expense. In that case the taxpayer - or, more likely, the taxpayer's tax adviser - will determine which tax rule offers the greater benefit and if it's not the credit, elect not to take the credit.
A limited deduction is allowed for "qualified higher education expenses" -- tuition and related expenses under the same definition as for tuition credits, above. A $4,000 above the line deduction (Form 8917) is allowed for qualified tuition expenses in 2013, but has been phased out for 2014. As such, for 2013 a deduction up to $4,000 is allowed on if taxpayer's (modified) adjusted gross income is $65,000 or less ($130,000 or less on a joint return). If taxpayer's modified adjusted gross income is more than $65,000 but not more than $80,000 (more than $130,000 but not more than $160,000 on a joint return), deduction is allowed up to $2,000. The tax deduction reduces your amount of income, reducing amount of tax you pay. You do not need to itemize deductions on Schedule A (Form 1040) in order to take this deduction, which benefits higher earners who cannot take the Lifetime Learning Credit because their income exceeds the limits.
Business expense deduction is allowed, without dollar limit, for education that serves the taxpayer's business, including employment. Deduction is also allowed for student loan interest, but a taxpayer may not take more than one deduction for the same item. In addition, you cannot claim this deduction if your filing status is married filing separately or if another person can claim an exemption for you as a dependent on his or her tax return.
"Qualified higher education expenses" must be reduced by any such expense paid with an amount treated as tax-free under the rules for excluding income from Series EE bonds, or Section 529 or 530 programs.
If your employer paid education assistance benefits (e.g., reimbursements of tuition), part or all of them may be tax-free. You can exclude up to $5,250 per year of the benefits you receive under a qualified educational assistance program. But you can't both exclude and deduct the same item, even if it's otherwise deductible. In order to qualify, your employer must have established an educational assistance plan that does not discriminate in favor of highly paid employees or owners. The exclusion applies to undergraduate level courses other than those involving sports, game and hobbies. The courses do not need to relate to your job. The exclusion is available for tuition, fees, books and supplies but not meals, lodging or transportation. And it applies to benefits for graduate level courses.
In addition to the exclusion for qualifying education plans, your employer can provide reimbursement for business related courses, including graduate courses. If your employer does not reimburse you for these expenses, you may be entitled to deduct them as a miscellaneous itemized deduction subject to the 2 percent deduction floor. To qualify, the expense must meet the requirement of your employer or the law or maintain or improve skills in your current job. The course must not meet minimum education requirements for your job or qualify you for a new trade or business.
You may be able to deduct interest on student loans. You may also be able to exclude income that you would otherwise have to report if a student loan is cancelled.
Interest Deduction. You may deduct student loan interest you pay, including interest paid that's not currently due because payment is deferred.
Deduction is allowed even though it would otherwise be nondeductible personal interest. But you may deduct only if you are the one legally bound to pay the interest, and only on loans solely for qualified expenses (so not under open credit lines).
The student-loan deduction (up to $2,500 starting in 2013), was made permanent by AFTRA, but only to taxpayers whose AGI is below $155,000 (joint filers) or $75,000 (single filers). Married couples filing separately can't take the deduction.
The student-loan interest deduction is an "above the line" deduction. In other words, you don't have to itemize in order to claim it. The loan must have been taken out to cover education expenses of at least half-time study for yourself, your spouse, or a person who was your dependent when you took out the loan.
Caution: You cannot deduct interest on a loan from a related person, for example, a relative, or a business entity in which you have an ownership interest as defined by the tax law. And you can't deduct if you are claimed as a dependent.
Tip: Where interest fails to qualify under these tests, consider a home equity loan, interest on which is generally deductible.
Cancellation of Student Loan. If certain requirements are met, cancellations of student loans that are intended to induce students to perform certain services do not increase the student's gross income. This relief extends to certain private programs, as well as government and public programs.