Reduce student loan debt by paying for college with tax credits

This IRS Tax Tip discusses two valuable education credits.

The American Opportunity Credit, in particular, can be a way for students to pay for college, or at least pay a good chunk of college expenses, by using tax credits that don’t have to be repaid. Granted, this credit only pays dollar-for-dollar for the first $2,000 of qualified expenses, and 25% of the cost for the next $2,000, so it won’t go very far if you’re going to Stanford. But for people willing to do their prerequisites at a community college, and then get a degree by doing a couple more years at a state school, the $10,000 value of the American Opportunity Credit over four years can go a LONG way toward reducing the student loan burden upon graduating.

IRS Tax Tip 2012-37

Two federal tax credits may help you offset the costs of higher education for yourself or your dependents. These are the American Opportunity Credit and the Lifetime Learning Credit.

To qualify for either credit, you must pay postsecondary tuition and fees for yourself, your spouse or your dependent. The credit may be claimed by either the parent or the student, but not both. If the student was claimed as a dependent, the student cannot file for the credit.

For each student, you may claim only one of the credits in a single tax year. You cannot claim the American Opportunity Credit to pay for part of your daughter’s tuition charges and then claim the Lifetime Learning Credit for $2,000 more of her school costs.

However, if you pay college expenses for two or more students in the same year, you can choose to take credits on a per-student, per-year basis. You can claim the American Opportunity Credit for your sophomore daughter and the Lifetime Learning Credit for your spouse’s graduate school tuition.

Here are some key facts the IRS wants you to know about these valuable education credits:

1. The American Opportunity Credit

  • The credit can be up to $2,500 per eligible student.
  • It is available for the first four years of postsecondary education.
  • Forty percent of the credit is refundable, which means that you may be able to receive up to $1,000, even if you owe no taxes.
  • The student must be pursuing an undergraduate degree or other recognized educational credential.
  • The student must be enrolled at least half time for at least one academic period.
    Qualified expenses include tuition and fees, coursed related books supplies and equipment.
  • The full credit is generally available to eligible taxpayers whose modified adjusted gross income is less than $80,000 or $160,000 for married couples filing a joint return.

2. Lifetime Learning Credit

  • The credit can be up to $2,000 per eligible student.
  • It is available for all years of postsecondary education and for courses to acquire or improve job skills.
  • The maximum credited is limited to the amount of tax you must pay on your return.
  • The student does not need to be pursuing a degree or other recognized education credential.
  • Qualified expenses include tuition and fees, course related books, supplies and equipment.
  • The full credit is generally available to eligible taxpayers whose modified adjusted gross income is less than $60,000 or $120,000 for married couples filing a joint return.

If you don’t qualify for these education credits, you may qualify for the tuition and fees deduction, which can reduce the amount of your income subject to tax by up to $4,000. However, you cannot claim the tuition and fees tax deduction in the same year that you claim the American Opportunity Tax Credit or the Lifetime Learning Credit. You must choose to either take the credit or the deduction and should consider which is more beneficial for you.

For more information about these tax benefits, see IRS Publication 970, Tax Benefits for Education available at http://www.irs.gov or by calling the IRS forms and publications order line at 800-TAX-FORM (800-829-3676).

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