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Tax breaks can help pay many college costs

This post was reviewed and updated Friday, Sept. 4, 2020.
The original post can be found

College-daughter hugging mome before heading to university

College and its ever-increasing costs certainly have gotten a lot of attention.

During the last two Democratic presidential primaries, candidates have proposed ways that Uncle Sam can provide additional educational assistance to students and their families.

As the 2020 school year gets off to a somewhat sputtering start during the COVID-19 pandemic, the costs of dealing with the medical and health care emergency are further complicating things.

School changes and costs: Remote classes mean families are having to purchase or upgrade electronic devices and internet connections so that their youngsters can continue their elementary through high school classes.

Many colleges are going to hybrid systems where online classes are combined with in-person sessions that require additional virus mitigation measures.

Naturally, questions and frustrations have cropped up about the costs associated with college in coronavirus time.

Should schools charge full tuition if some (or much) of the college experience is off-campus?

Are added fees to revamp classrooms to ensure safe (or at least safer) gatherings warranted?

Should students and their families demand partial refunds of tuition and fees to reflect the schools' changes from their traditional educational methods?

These debates are going to continue well into this and next year's semesters.

Educational help from Uncle Sam: But one thing remains even in this disjointed school year. Whatever COVID-19's effect on education costs, students and parents still must pay some of them. And there are ways that the tax code can help.

Existing educational tax incentives range from tax credits and deductions to tax-favored savings options and scholarships and even employer help.

It takes a little homework to find the educational tax benefits that meet your particular needs, but it could be worth it. Here's an overview.

Tax credits: Tax credits are the best tax break. Rather than simply reduce the amount of your income that's subject to tax, credits cut any tax you owe dollar-for-dollar.

There are two educational tax credits, the American Opportunity Credit and the Lifetime Learning Credit.

The American Opportunity tax credit provides up to $2,500 for each eligible student. It covers an eligible student's qualified education expenses paid during the student's first four years of higher education.

Like most tax breaks, it takes some calculating to get the most from the American Opportunity credit. You get a credit of 100 percent of the first $2,000 of qualified education expenses per student and then 25 percent of the next $2,000 in college costs.

But one of the best things about the American Opportunity credit is that it is refundable. That means, as that descriptor indicates, if the credit reduces your tax liability to zero, the excess is refunded to you. In the case of the American Opportunity credit, you can collect 40 percent of any remaining credit amount (up to $1,000) as a tax refund.

There are, of course, requirements that must be met, such as being a qualified student. Those specifics can be found at the Internal Revenue Service's special Web page on the American Opportunity tax credit.

Those details also include the income limits on just who can claim the full credit. To get the most benefit, your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI*) must be less than $80,000 if you're a single filer or double that for married couples filing a joint return. taxpayers ($160,000 married filing jointly). And if your MAGI is more than $90,000 as a single taxpayer or $180,000 and you're married filing jointly, you can't claim the American Opportunity tax credit.

*Shameless plug for the ol' blog's glossary, which explains MAGI as well as many other tax term definitions.

The Lifetime Learning Credit is for older students. It provides a maximum annual amount up to $2,000 per tax return. That amount is based on 20 percent of the first $10,000 of qualifying educational expenses.

The good thing about the Lifetime Learning Credit is that students who go beyond four years of studies and even workers taking career-improving classes can claim it. The bad news is that it is not refundable. If you have any excess Lifetime Learning Credit after it erases your tax bill, you lose that excess credit.

The Lifetime Learning Credit also has MAGI limitations. For the 2018 tax year, this credit phases out your income level is between $57,000 and $67,000; for married filing jointly couples, the limits are between $114,000 and $134,000. Once you make more that those amounts, you can't claim the Lifetime Learning Credit.

Again, you can find specifics on the Lifetime Learning Credit at the IRS' special online page.

Tax deductions: The hubby's perennial tax season chant is "deduct, deduct, deduct." Although not as immediately beneficial as a tax credit, deductions still can help. They help lower your taxable income level, which means you should have a smaller tax bill, possibly even falling into a lower tax bracket.

There are two current education tax deductions. Both are what are known as above-the-line deductions, meaning you don't have to itemize to claim them.

Both are available for qualifying undergraduate and graduate student costs.

First, let's look at the deduction that's available now, the student loan interest deduction.

Many students and their families find that they need outside money to cover at least some college costs. When you take out a student loan, up to $2,500 of interest paid during the year can be claimed.

The student loan interest deduction also is phased out as student/family income increases. This income phaseout is adjusted annually for inflation. Note, however, that the actual interest deduction amount stays the same since it's set by tax law at $2,500. 

For 2019 and 2020 tax years (not much inflation, so no change), you can claim the full $2,500 student loan interest deduction as long as you, as a single taxpayer, have MAGI of $70,000 or less. The cut-off for married filing joint returns taxpayers is $140,000 in modified income. If you make more than these amounts for your filing status, the loan deduction amount is reduced.

The loan interest deduction is eliminated if your MAGI as a single taxpayer is $85,000 or more or $170,000+ for married joint filers. Once you make more that those amounts, you can't deduct the interest.

Home loans to cover college now nixed
A Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) provision did away with a popular college loan option.
Previously, homeowners were able to take out a home equity loan,
use that money to cover college costs and then deduct the loan's interest.
No longer.
Now interest is deductible only when the home equity funds
are used in connection with the property (e.g., adding a residential addition
or making needed repairs) securing the loan. 

The other above-the-line tax education-related tax deduction is the one for qualifying college tuition and fees. This provides up to $4,000 for just what the name says.

The tuition and fees deduction is available for the 2019 and 2020 tax years. However, it's part of a group of technically temporary tax breaks known as extenders which must be periodically renewed by Congress. For the tuition and fees tax break to continue into 2021, Capitol Hill must renew it (and others) yet again.

Education savings options: Americans aren't very good at saving. However, many parents do try to put away cash for their kids' eventual college costs. There are some tax-favored savings vehicles for these moms and dads (and grandparents and aunts and uncles, too).

The most popular are 529 plans, which get their name from the federal tax code section under which they were created. A 529 plan can be established for a youngster, known as the account beneficiary, and money contributed to it grows tax-free.

When the young person heads off to college, the 529 money can be used, again tax-free, to pay for qualifying education expenses, such as tuition, fees, books, supplies, equipment and room and board at eligible institutions.

Some pre-college costs count, too
Another TCJA change allows for up to $10,000 per student per year of 529 plan money
to be used to pay certain primary or secondary (Kindergarten through grade 12) costs
at public, private, and religious schools. 

While 529 plans were authorized by federal legislation, the plans themselves are administered by states. All 50 offer some type of 529 and you can invest in a plan established in another state if it better fits your family and educational needs.

Anyone can contribute to a student's 529 without worrying about income limits. But these donors don't get any tax benefit for their gifts. And speaking of gifts, a 529 plan is a good destination for the $15,000 annual gift exclusion amount.

And while there are no annual contribution limits for 529 plans, there are lifetime contribution limits. These vary by plan, with most recent limits ranging from ranging from $235,000 to $529,000.  

But federal law does say that 529 plan balances cannot exceed the expected cost of the beneficiary's qualified higher education expenses. Basically, this is what the states administering the plans believe will be the full cost of attending an expensive school and graduate school, including textbooks and room and board.

My earlier post 529 college saving plan perks and pitfalls has more on these plans.

Coverdell Education Savings Accounts also offer tax benefits when it comes to school costs, both higher education and pre-college expenses. The amount that can be contributed to a Coverdell, however, is much lower — at most $2,000 a year — and income limits — $110,000 ($220,000 for married filing jointly — apply to contributors.

Additional tax-free educational assistance: The tax code also allows for other, tax-free ways to cover many educational costs. This generally involves getting individuals income that is excluded from taxation.

A common way this is accomplished is by getting help from your boss. Such employer-provided educational assistance is offered by many companies to help their workers. As long as these programs are set up under IRS rules, you could get up to $5,250 for school costs without that money counting as taxable income to you.

Other companies also are looking at workplace benefits that help employees pay off their student debt. Last August, the IRS issued a private letter ruling that allowed a company to tie its workplace 401(k) contributions to workers' student loan repayments.

Some companies had established similar student loan workplace assistance arrangements even before the IRS announced its tax-favored position on that particular case and more could follow.

Then there are scholarships. We're talking actual, student qualifying assistance, not the kind of paid-for but fake assistance for faux athletes alleged in the Varsity Blues case.

As long as you meet IRS guidelines, the scholarship amount is tax-free. This generally means a student must be a candidate for a degree at an eligible educational institution and use the scholarship to pay qualified education expenses (e.g., tuition, enrollment fees, books, supplies and equipment required for the courses).

No double dipping
Determining which tax-related assistance works best
for you or your child is not an easy assignment.
Further complicating the decision is noting that you can't double dip.
That means you can't take more than one education benefit
for the same student and the same expenses.
For example, you can't take the American Opportunity
and Lifetime Learning credits for the same student in the same tax year.
And if you receive tax-free educational assistance,
you must subtract that amount from your qualified education expenses. 

Support other students:
Finally, speaking of scholarships, if you have some extra cash and want to help others get a quality education, you can create a scholarship at your alma mater.

Not to toot our own horns, but that's what the hubby and I did for students who need some help to begin and/or continue their journalism studies at Texas Tech University. We're proud of our school and how well it prepared us for our post-graduation professional lives. We want others to have similar opportunities.

Plus, it was fun and we met there, although we didn't start dating until later. But I (happily) digress.

Your school's financial services office, like the folks at TTU and its College of Media & Communication, will help you establish a scholarship program that meets your goals, student needs and Internal Revenue Service guidelines.

If you're able to and so inclined to help via a scholarship, check with your alma mater about the process. Or simply donate to an existing one.

In addition to knowing your gift will help someone gain college credit, donations to a legitimate scholarship fund — either one you create or an existing one — are tax deductible.

You also might find these items of interest:





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Is there a way to know what is the status of these processes (i.e. which is in the works, which is not) and also by when we'll know about the extension if they indeed occur?

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