Education tax benefits: A report card

While Congress extended the reduced individual income tax rates with passage of the Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization, and Job Creation Act of 2010 (2010 Tax Relief Act) in late 2010, it also extended several educational tax benefits as well through 2012. As families plan their upcoming tax year, it is important to keep these benefits in mind.

American Opportunity Tax Credit

Individuals may continue to claim a credit against their federal tax liability based on tuition payments and certain related expenses. Previously referred to as the Hope Credit, the American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC) remains available for taxpayers for the 2011 and 2012 tax years. Qualifying families may claim an annual tax credit of up to $2,500 for undergraduate college expenses, up to $10,000 for a four-year program.  According to a recently-issued report, Treasury predicts that 9.4 million families will be able to claim a total of $18.2 billion AOTC credits in 2011, an average of $1,900 per family.

Lifetime learning credit

Taxpayers can claim the lifetime learning credit for post-high school education, as well as courses to acquire or improve job skills. These institutions include colleges, universities, vocational schools, and any other postsecondary educational institution eligible to participate in a student aid program administered by the U.S. Department of Education. The lifetime learning credit is limited to $2,000 per eligible student, based upon payment of tuition and other qualified expenses.  

The IRS released Tax Tip 2010-12 reminding taxpayers that they cannot claim both the lifetime learning credit and the AOTC for one child in a single tax year. However, if the family has multiple children in college, the family may apply the credits on a “per-student, per-year basis.” This means that the family with two children in college, for example, could claim the AOTC for one child and the lifetime learning credit for the other.

Coverdell Education Savings Accounts

The 2010 Tax Relief Act also extended the increased maximum contribution amount to Coverdell education savings accounts. Taxpayers may contribute a maximum of $2,000 per year to these tax-preferred accounts. Earnings on these contributions grow tax-free, while amounts subsequently withdrawn are excludable from gross income to the extent used for qualified educational expenses.

Educational assistance programs

The 2010 Tax Relief Act also extended taxpayers’ annual exclusion of up to $5,250 in employer-provided educational assistance from their gross income. The exclusion applies to both gross income for federal income tax purposes, as well as wages for employment tax purposes.

Federal Scholarships with Service requirements

The 2010 Tax Relief Act continues the gross income exclusion for scholarships with obligatory service requirements received by candidates at certain qualified educational organizations. The exclusion applies to scholarships granted by the National Health Service Corps Scholarship Program or the F. Edward Hebert Armed Forces Health Professions Scholarship and Financial Assistance Program.

Qualified Tuition and Expense Deduction

The 2010 Tax Relief Act also extends the above-the-line deduction for qualified tuition and related expenses through 2011. The deduction applies to tuition and fees paid for the enrollment of the taxpayer, the taxpayer’s spouse, or any dependent for which the taxpayer is entitled to a dependency exemption. Taxpayers can not claim both one of the education tax credits and the tuition and expense deduction in a single year. These continue to be either/or tax breaks.

Student loan interest deduction

Finally, after the student graduates, they may still claim an educational tax benefit by repaying their educational loans. Within certain adjusted gross income limits, taxpayers may claim a deduction for interest paid on student loans. The 2010 Tax Relief Act extends favorable limits on this deduction. Through 2012, the law extended the increased modified adjusted gross income phase-out ranges, meaning more taxpayers can claim the deduction. The 2010 Tax Relief Act also extended the repeal of the 60-month limit on deductible payments.


About Don James, CPA/PFS, CFP
Don is the Tax & Financial Planning partner with Kiplinger & Co., CPAs headquartered in sunny Cleveland, Ohio since 1982. He partners with business owners and families and specializes in goal achievement solutions, tax minimization strategies and serves in the role of gatekeeper of sound financial advice.

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