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Education Credits

American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC)

Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), more parents and students will qualify for the American Opportunity Tax Credit to help pay for college expenses.

The American Opportunity Tax Credit is a modification of the existing Hope Credit. The AOTC makes credit available to a broader range of taxpayers, including many with higher incomes and those who owe no tax. It also adds required course materials to the list of qualifying expenses and allows the credit to be claimed for four post-secondary education years instead of two. Many of those eligible will qualify for the maximum annual credit of $2,500 per student.

The full credit is available to individuals, whose modified adjusted gross income is $80,000 or less, or $160,000 or less for married couples filing a joint return. The credit is phased out for taxpayers with incomes above these levels. Unlike the other education tax credits, the American opportunity tax credit includes expenses for course-related books, supplies and equipment that are not necessarily paid to the educational institution. It also differs from the Hope scholarship credit because it allows the credit to be claimed for four years of post-secondary education instead of two.

It is a tax credit of up to $2,500 of the cost of tuition, fees and course materials paid during the taxable year. Also, 40% of the credit (up to $1,000) is refundable. This means you can get it even if you owe no tax. For the American opportunity tax credit, qualified expenses have been expanded to include expenditures for course materials, as well as tuition and required fees. For this purpose, the term "course materials" means books, supplies and equipment needed for a course of study whether or not the materials are purchased from the educational institution as a condition of enrollment or attendance. The American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 extended the AOTC for five years through December 2017. If you still have questions about the American Opportunity Tax Credit, these questions and answers might help.

Lifetime Learning Credit

The lifetime learning credit helps parents and students pay for post-secondary education.

For the tax year, you may be able to claim a lifetime learning credit of up to $2,000 for qualified education expenses paid for all students enrolled in eligible educational institutions. There is no limit on the number of years the lifetime learning credit can be claimed for each student. However, a taxpayer cannot claim both the American Opportunity Credit and Lifetime Learning Credits for the same student in one year. Thus, the Lifetime Learning Credit may be particularly helpful to graduate students, students who are only taking one course and those who are not pursuing a degree.

Generally, you can claim the lifetime learning credit if all three of the following requirements are met:

  1. You pay qualified education expenses of higher education.
  2. You pay the education expenses for an eligible student.
  3. The eligible student is yourself, your spouse or a dependent for which you claim an exemption on your tax return.

If you pay qualified education expenses for more than one student in the same year, you can choose to take credits on a per-student, per-year basis. This means that, for example, you can claim the American Opportunity Credit for one student and the Lifetime Learning Credit for another student in the same year.