During this presidential primary season, the cost of higher education has been a major campaign issue, especially on the Democratic side.
Sen. Bernie Sanders is proposing free college for all. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has a plan for debt-free college. Business Insider has a side-by-side comparison of Sanders' College for All Act and Clinton's New College Compact.
But until Clinton or Sanders is elected, students and their families will have to rely on existing educational tax breaks.
Comparing current education tax benefits: The most popular are the American Opportunity and Lifetime Learning tax credits, and the above-the-line Tuition and Fees deduction. Each provides tax savings every year to millions of taxpayers.
Credits generally are better than deductions since they offer dollar-for-dollar savings on what you owe the U.S. Treasury. Deductions, on the other hand, help reduce your income and that typically means a smaller tax bill.
But tax generalities aside, taxes are unique to each filer's personal circumstances. So when it comes to education tax breaks, examine each in relation to your personal tax situation to see (a) if you qualify and (b) which is better for your taxes.
The Internal Revenue Service' side-by-side comparison of the popular education tax breaks can help.
Education Credits and Tuition Deduction Comparison
Tax Year 2015
|Lifetime Learning (LLC)||Tuition and
|Maximum credit or benefit||Up to $2,500 credit per eligible student||Up to $2,000 credit per return||Up to $4,000 taxable income reduction per return|
|Refundable or nonrefundable||40% of credit||Not refundable||Does not apply|
|Limit on modified adjusted gross income (MAGI)* for married filing jointly||$180,000||$130,000||$160,000|
Limit on MAGI* for single, head of household, or qualifying widow(er)
|Can you file married filing separately?||No|
|Dependent status||Cannot claim credit if you are claimed as a dependent on someone else's return|
|Must you or your spouse be a U.S. Citizen or Resident Alien?||Yes, unless nonresident alien is treated as resident alien for tax purposes (see Publication 519 for information on nonresident alien status)|
|Number of years of post-secondary education available||Only if student hasn't completed 4 years of post-secondary education before 2015||All years of post-secondary education and for courses to acquire or improve job skills||All years of post-secondary education|
|Number of tax years credit available||4 tax years per eligible student including any years former Hope credit claimed||Unlimited||Unlimited|
|Type of program required||Student must be pursuing a degree or other recognized education credential||Student does not need to be pursuing a degree or other recognized education credential||Student must be enrolled at eligible educational institution for one or more courses|
|Number of courses||Student must have been enrolled at least half time for at least one academic period beginning in 2015||Available for one or more courses||Available for one or more courses at eligible educational institution|
|Felony drug conviction||No felony drug convictions as of the end of the tax year||Does not apply||Does not apply|
|Qualified expenses||Tuition, required enrollment fees and course materials needed for course of study||Tuition and fees required for enrollment or attendance||Tuition and fees required for enrollment or attendance|
|For whom can you claim the benefit?||
|Who must pay the qualified expenses?||
|Payments for academic periods||
Made in 2015 for academic periods beginning in 2015 or the first 3 months of 2016
|Do I need to claim the credit or deduction on a schedule or form?||Yes, Form 8917, Tuition and Fees Deduction|
*MAGI for most people is the amount of adjusted gross income (AGI) shown on your tax return. In some cases, some income exclusions and deductions are added back to arrive at MAGI.
**Third Party-Qualified education expenses paid by a third party for you or your student claimed as a dependent on your return are considered paid by you for the American Opportunity tax credit (AOTC) and Lifetime Learning credit (LLC). Payments by third parties include amounts paid by relatives or friends.
More in tax tips: A couple of Daily Tax Tips last week focused on educational tax breaks. They have a bit more on the popular AOTC and LLC, as well as other educational tax breaks.
The three other tips posted the week of March 21-25 examined required retirement account distributions and a couple of itemized tax deductions. They are:
- Check out the many education tax breaks (Monday, March 21, 2016)
- An education tax credit primer (Tuesday, March 22, 2016)
- Older folks face April 1 RMD deadline (Wednesday, March 23, 2016)
- Deducting state and local taxes (Thursday, March 24, 2016)
- Maximizing medical deductions (Friday, March 25, 2016)
If you're a student or have one in your family, I hope the current education tax breaks can help ease some of the high costs of higher education.
For folks whose school days are over, here's hoping that this week's or previous tax tips can help you cut your current tax bill.
In addition to these end-of-week tax tip roundups, you can find all of the 2016 tax tips posted so far on their special January, February and March blog pages. The tips will continue, highlighted each weekday in the upper right corner of the ol' blog, through the April 18 filing deadline.