What are the tax credits and deductions relating to higher education?
There are two education tax credits–the Hope credit and the Lifetime Learning credit–that provide some relief to families in the midst of financing their children’s college education. There is also a federal income tax deduction for certain taxpayers who pay qualified higher education expenses, as well as a deduction for certain individuals who pay student loans. As a general rule, a tax credit is a dollar-for-dollar reduction against taxes owed, and it is therefore more valuable than a tax deduction of the same dollar amount.
The first tax credit is called the Hope credit. In 2008, it’s worth a maximum $1,800($1,650 in 2007) per student in tax savings for the first two years of your child’s post-secondary education. The credit is calculated as 100 percent of the first $1,200 of qualified tuition and related expenses, plus 50 percent of the next $1,200 of expenses.
As one would expect, Congress has placed restrictions on the use of the Hope credit. First, the credit applies only to undergraduate students who are enrolled in college on at least a half-time basis. Second, the ability of parents to take the credit depends on their modified adjusted gross income (MAGI). In 2008, for married couples filing jointly, MAGI must be below $96,000 ($94,000 in 2007) to take advantage of the full credit. A limited credit is available to those in the $96,000 to $116,000 range ($94,000 to $114,000 in 2008). For single filers, your MAGI must be below $48,000 ($47,000 in 2007) to take the full credit. A limited credit is available to those in the $48,000 to $58,000 range ($47,000 to $57,000 in 2007).
One distinct advantage of the Hope credit is that there is no limit on the number of credits that may be claimed on a single tax return in a given year (provided each person qualifies independently). For example, if Mom and Dad have triplets who are in their freshman year of college, then Mom and Dad can claim a total of $5,400 ($1,800 x 3) in Hope credits for that year. However, the Hope credit and Lifetime Learning credit are mutually exclusive; they cannot be taken in the same year.
Lifetime Learning credit
The second tax credit is called the Lifetime Learning credit. This credit is worth a maximum yearly tax savings of $2,000. The credit is calculated as 20 percent of the first $10,000 of qualified tuition and related expenses.
As the name implies, the Lifetime Learning credit is intended to apply to higher education courses taken throughout your lifetime, whether to acquire or improve job skills. As such, it is less restrictive on the type and level of enrollment than the Hope credit. For example, the Lifetime Learning credit is available to graduate students as well as to undergraduate students. It is also available to students enrolled on less than a half-time basis. So, a single word processing course taken by a lawyer at his or her local community college will qualify for the credit.
As with the Hope credit, there are restrictions on the Lifetime Learning credit. The same MAGI limits that apply to the Hope credit also apply to the Lifetime Learning credit. One particular disadvantage of the Lifetime Learning credit is that it is limited to a total of $2,000 per tax return per year, regardless of the number of people who qualify in a family in a given year. So, in the example with the triplets, Mom and Dad would be able to take a total credit of $2,000, not $6,000. Yet on the plus side, the Lifetime Learning credit is available for an unlimited number of years, whereas the Hope credit is limited to the first two years of a child’s post-secondary education.
Deduction for qualified higher education expenses
For tax year 2007, you may also be able to deduct at least part of the qualified higher education expenses you paid during the tax year. These expenses include the tuition and fees you’ve paid for enrollment in a degree or certificate program at an accredited post-secondary educational institution. Congress has not passed legislation extending this tax deduction to subsequent years.
Student loan interest deduction
You can deduct up to $2,500 of the interest you pay on qualified student loans each year, provided you meet the income limits. In 2008, for single filers, a full deduction is available with a modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) up to $55,000; a partial deduction is available for a MAGI between $55,000 and $70,000. For joint filers, a full deduction is available with a MAGI up to $115,000; a partial deduction is available with a MAGI between $115,000 and $145,000.
This is a quick overview of education tax credits and should not be considered tax advice for your specific situation.