Taxes

How To Make the Most of the Single Best College Tax Break

College campus
Andersen Ross—Getty Images This scene can save you money on your taxes.

Nearly 2 million Americans pay too much in taxes because of confusion over education benefits. Here's how to avoid that mistake.

Back in January President Obama proposed consolidating many overlapping education tax benefits, a plan that appears long dead. Too bad, since millions of taxpayers make mistakes writing off education expenses on their 1040s and pay hundreds in unnecessary taxes as a result.

A 2012 Government Accountability Office report found that education tax breaks were so complicated and poorly understood that 1.5 million families who were eligible for one failed to claim it and overpaid their taxes by more than $450 a year. Another 275,000 families were so confused that they opted for the wrong benefit and overpaid by an average of $284.

Here’s how to get college tax breaks right on this year’s return and beyond.

Stick With The Winner

In any given year, you’re allowed to claim only one of these three tuition tax benefits: The tuition and fees deduction, the lifetime learning credit or the American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC).

Don’t be distracted by all the options. The AOTC is the most lucrative and broadest education tax benefit available, and it should be your first choice, says Gary Carpenter, a CPA who is executive director of the National College Advocacy Group.

The AOTC, available to a student for up to four years, cuts your federal taxes dollar-for-dollar. You can take the credit for up to $2,000 in tuition or fees, and 25% of another $2,000 of qualified expenses, for a total max of $2,500. Married couples with adjusted gross incomes of up to $180,000, or $90,000 for single filers, are eligible to claim the AOTC.

Even if you owe no federal income taxes, you can get a refund check for up to $1,000 by claiming the AOTC.

Maximize Your Benefit

Now that you know that the AOTC is tops, you need to know how to get the full benefit on the maximum $4,000 in eligible expenses, which can be complicated in these four situations.

1. You have a super generous financial aid package: Did your little genius get such a big scholarship that you’ll pay less than $4,000 for tuition, fees, and books? Once you’re done celebrating, call the scholarship provider and ask if you can use some of that money to pay for room and board instead, advises Alison Flores, principal tax research analyst with The Tax Institute at H&R Block.

This may seem odd, since scholarships are tax-free only if you use the money for tuition and fees. But by shifting some of the aid so that you pay $4,000 worth of tuition, fees, or book costs out of your own pocket, you can get the maximum benefit from the AOTC. That $2,500 credit typically outweighs whatever additional taxes you’d have to pay on a re-allocated scholarship, says Flores.

2. Your tuition payments are low: One way students attending low-tuition colleges can make sure they get the full advantage of the AOTC is by paying a full academic year’s tuition by Dec. 31, instead of waiting until the start of the second semester in January to pay that semester’s bills.

3. You’ve saved in a 529 plan: You can claim the AOTC only for tuition that you paid for with taxable savings, notes the NCAG’s Carpenter. When you take money from a 529 college savings plan to pay your tuition, that withdrawal is tax-free. So there’s no double dipping. You can’t also claim the AOTC for those funds.

Assuming you don’t have enough in the 529 plan to pay the entire annual tuition, room and board bill (and who does?), earmark the 529 withdrawal for room and board, and pay at least $4,000 in tuition with taxable savings.

4. You’re taking out large loans. If you’re using loans to cover tuition, you can use the money you borrowed to claim the AOTC. If you and your spouse report a joint income of less than $160,000, you can also deduct the interest on your payments.

Parents can deduct the interest on loans they take out for their children’s education, but not on payments they voluntarily make on the student’s loans, Flores notes.

Take Care With the Paperwork

Once you’ve done everything else right, don’t lose a tax break at filing time. For that, you need to keep good records.

Colleges typically don’t report all the information you need to claim all of your education tax breaks on the 1098-T forms they send out each year. They usually provide only the amount they’ve billed you, explains Anne Gross, vice president of regulatory affairs for the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO).

To get all of the tax goodies, you’ll have to show the IRS how much you paid, and where the money came from. Some colleges will allow you to gather that information from their online accounts portal, Gross says. But as a backup, it’s smart to keep your own records.

Shift Gears as a Super Senior or Grad Student

Once you’ve used up a student’s four years of eligibility for the AOTC, try for some of the smaller, more limited education tax breaks. If you earn less than $128,000 as a married couple, switch to claiming the lifetime learning credit starting in year five of your dependent student’s higher education. There is no limit to the number of years you can receive this credit of up to $2,000.

If you make between $128,000 and $160,000, you can write off up to $4,000 from your income using the tuition and fees deduction.

Keep Cutting Your Taxes Post-Graduation

When school is finally over, the tax breaks don’t end. Singles earning less than $80,000 and couples earning less than $160,000 can deduct up to $2,500 a year in student loan interest. Parents with federal PLUS loans can claim their interest payments on this deduction. But parents who are voluntarily making payments on their children’s student loans cannot claim that interest.

Catch a Break When You Save Too

Finally, President Obama’s plan to eliminate tax-free withdrawals from 529 college savings plan has been squashed as well, preserving the tax benefits on the money you’ve set aside for your, your children’s, or your grandchildren’s college costs. Although contributions to a 529 are not deductible on your federal income tax return, the earnings grow tax-free. And as long as you spend the money on qualified college expenses, withdrawals are tax-free as well.

What’s more, 32 states give you a break on your state taxes for your 529 contributions (or, in New Jersey’s case, a scholarship). These benefits are worth exploiting: A Morningstar report found that, on average, they equate to a first-year boost on your investment returns of 6%. Check this map to see if you live in a state that rewards college savers.

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