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College Education Expenses?

Look at the following four education tax benefits:

(1) The American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOC)

The AOC is larger in scope than the old Hope Credit and is now the prime education tax benefit to choose. The AOC can be a credit of up to $2,500. The other thing is that the Hope could only be used for the first two years of school, the AOC is good for all four years. This is a huge improvement.

One really nice thing is that the AOC is a tax credit just like the previous Hope Credit but also with the AOC you can even get a refund back of up to $1,000 from the government. You could not from the old Hope. For example, if you calculate out the tax you owe in April for the recent tax year and you owe $1,500 but then you qualify for the full AOC of $2,500 credit; then you would actually get a thousand bucks from Uncle Sam. The limit you can get a check back is 40% of the AOC; [40% x $2,500 = $1,000 max].

Keep in mind the American Opportunity Credit was extended through 31 December 2017 as part of the American Tax Payer Relief Act of 2012. This ATPRA of 2012 actually passed congress and was signed by the president in the first couple of days of January 2013.

The math above is intended to illustrate that $1,000 is the highest check you can possibly get back from the government. Looking at another example: your tax liability was $1,300 and you qualified for the full AOC credit of $2,500. In this case you do not have to pay but you do not get the full $1,200 dollar difference back as a check from Uncle Sam. Since the limit is $1,000 you only get the thousand bucks refund check. There is a worksheet available that gives you the right answer if your situation is some oddball number of tax liability and/or amount of AOC credit.

The last AOC thing to know is how to qualify for the max AOC instead of a smaller amount of AOC. You must spend at least $4,000 on qualifying expenses to get the max $2,500 AOC credit. What expenses are qualifying expenses? Obviously tuition and fees. In a departure from previous tax incentives to encourage higher education, the AOC allows other expenses to also qualify. Books and even other course matierials which some professors will require will qualify. For example, if a professor requires you to have some special little software package that you have to buy.

(2) Tax Deductions for Tuition and Fees

how to finance education expenses

Lets say you cannot take the AOC tax credit. You can still take the normal deduction up to $4,000 (or the amount you spent on tuition and fees, if less than $4,000). This tax deduction is not as good, obviously as the AOC tax credit. But it can still have a substantial impact on your tax burden. Let's say you are in the 25% tax bracket. Your actual $ savings to you is then 25% of the deduction amount so if you get a $4,000 tax deduction, you are actually $1,000 richer in real money when all is said and done.

The American Tax Payer Relief Act of 2012 extended the sunset of many so called "tax extenders" among those extended were both the deduction for tuition and fees and the deduction for interest paid on student loans. The 'ATPRA of 2012' extended both of these deductions through 31 December 2017.

Just in case it is not already clear, there is no double dipping allowed. You cannot take both the AOC and the tuition tax deduction for the same student in the same tax year. You can choose either the AOC. Or you can choose the normal deduction up to $4k. But you cannot take both. You may be able to take the tuition and fees tax deduction if you, your spouse, or a dependent you claim on your tax return was a student enrolled at or attending an eligible educational institution. The deduction is based on the amount of qualified education expenses you paid for the student in the academic school year for academic periods beginning in the academic school year and the first 3 months of the following year.

Generally, in order to claim the deduction for qualified education expenses for a dependent, you must have paid the expenses in the academic school year and must claim an exemption for the student as a dependent on your tax return (line 6c of Form 1040 or 1040A). For additional information, see chapter 6 of Pub. 970. You cannot claim the tuition and fees deduction if any of the following apply:

• Your filing status is married filing separately;

• Another person can claim an exemption for you as a dependent on his or her tax return. You cannot take the deduction even if the other person does not actually claim that exemption;

• Your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI), as figured on line 5, is more than $65,000 ($130,000 if filing a joint return);

• You were a nonresident alien at any time during the academic school year;

(3) Student Loan Interest Tax Deduction

For those of you who are now in the pay-back phase of your student loan, you get a little break too. The interest portion of your payments on your stud loan paid during the year is tax deductable. Once again this is a deduction that phases out for higher income earners. your income is too high. The phaseout is from $50k to $65k for singles and $100k to $130k for joint marrieds.

One other good point about both the tax deduction for tuition and fees and the tax deduction for student loan interest paid is that they are both above the line deductions. This means you get to deduct them whether or not you itemize your deductions on schedule A. Even if you just take the standard deduction, you still get these write offs.

(4) The Lifetime Learning Tax Credit

Who can take the Lifetime Learning Credit?

these three things must apply:

•(1)    You paid qualified expenses for higher education;
•(2)    You paid the qualified education expenses for an eligible student;
•(3)    The eligible student is yourself, your spouse or a dependent for whom you claim an exemption on your tax return;

Other facts:

• (1)    Again the income limits apply,  if you are over $51k single or $102k marrieds the credit starts to phase out;
• (2)    The max credit is $2,000 per year on this one;
• (3)    You can take this credit for an unlimited number of years;
• (4)    The student does not need to be pursuing a degree or credential;
• (5)    The payments must have been made in the tax year for academic periods beginning in either the same year or the first three months of the following year;


The lifetime learning tax credit is broad in its applicability. It applies not only to undergraduates and grad students but also to vocational courses and schools and even professional level courses. Qualified expenses on this credit include, as usual, tuition and fees. It also applies to other course materials such as books and equipment, but on this credit there is the further stipulation that those expenses must have been paid directly to the teaching institution itself. So if you bought the book from the off-campus private bookstore, you're out of luck for the cost of that book.

If you or your college bound student is looking for a complete overview of financing sources to pay for college,  here is a complete, though brief, five page summary covering everything from federal financing sources to alternative and creative ways to pay for school.

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