The Best Tax Benefits for Education in 2018

Most education tax benefits escaped repeal under the new tax law

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2018 has been a hotbed of significant tax law changes, but educational tax breaks have largely emerged unscathed from the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA). The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 stepped in to save another tax credit that would have otherwise expired.

These tax benefits include credits, deductions, and tax-free savings. Tax credits are considered the best of all because they come off what you owe the Internal Revenue Service for the year, dollar for dollar. Deductions merely reduce your taxable income. That’s not to be scoffed at, but a deduction simply works out to a percent of each dollar you can claim, equal to your marginal tax bracket.

Education Tax Credits

The American Opportunity Credit (AOC) and the Lifetime Learning Credit (LLC)—perhaps the best-known education tax breaks—are still alive and well.

Both require that you have qualified education expenses incurred at an eligible educational institution, although you don’t necessarily have to be the student. These credits cover your education, your spouse’s education, or your dependents’ educations.

The student must have a valid Social Security number or taxpayer identification number at the time you file your tax return. The educational expenses must be paid out of your own pocket. Tuition costs paid from nontaxable scholarships don’t qualify.

You can claim one credit or the other, but not both in the same year, at least not for the same student. You can claim one credit for each student’s expenses, and your dependents can claim their own credits, but not if you claim them as dependents on your own return.

That last rule is somewhat moot in 2018, however, because the TCJA has eliminated personal exemptions for taxpayers and their dependents.

The American Opportunity Credit

The American Opportunity Credit is restricted to undergraduates who are enrolled at least half-time a year. Graduate students don’t qualify. It’s equal to the first $2,000 you spend per student plus 25 percent of the next $2,000 you spend, for a maximum credit of $2,500.

The AOC begins phasing out at certain income levels. Your credit is gradually reduced if your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) is above the first threshold, and it becomes unavailable entirely if your MAGI reaches the second threshold.

These thresholds are $80,000 and $90,000 for single taxpayers in 2018, and $160,000 and $180,000 for married taxpayers who file joint returns.

The Lifetime Learning Credit

The Lifetime Learning Credit is open to all students, even graduate students and those who are enrolled less than half-time. It’s not quite as generous as the AOC, however. This credit is equal to 20 percent of up to $10,000 in eligible education expenses, or $2,000 total.

It's also subject to MAGI phase-outs: $57,000 and $67,000 for single taxpayers, and $114,000 and $134,000 for married taxpayers filing jointly.

The Tuition and Fees Deduction

The tuition and fees tax deduction expired at the end of 2016, but then the Bipartisan Budget Act extended it through 2017. No word yet on whether it will be resurrected yet again for 2018, but don’t count it out. This is one of those deductions that gets new life on a fairly regular basis, usually at the eleventh or even thirteenth hour as happened in February 2018 for the 2017 deduction.

This deduction can reduce your taxable income by up to $4,000, and it’s one of those above-the-line deductions—an adjustment to income that you don’t have to itemize to claim. You can take this deduction and claim the standard deduction or itemize your other deductions as well.

It’s off limits for anyone who can be claimed as a dependent on someone else’s tax return, even if that someone else doesn’t actually claim her. The point is that he could have if he had wanted to. You also can’t be married but file a separate tax return.

You can’t claim this deduction and one of the education tax credits as well, but it has somewhat higher phase-out limits than the LLC so taxpayers who don’t qualify for the LLC might be able to claim this tax break instead. The phase-out thresholds are $65,000 to $80,000 for single filers and $130,000 to $160,000 for married joint filers.

The Student Loan Interest Deduction

This deduction is restricted to single filers with MAGIs between $65,000 and $80,000 as of 2018, or $135,000 to $160,000 for those who are married and filing jointly. You can claim up to $2,500 in interest you paid on student loans during the tax year. This, too, is an adjustment to income, so you can claim the standard deduction or itemize as well. 

It doesn’t cover loans from employer plans or from individuals who are related to you. And, of course, you must actually have used the proceeds of the loan to fund your education or that of your spouse or dependents—you used the money to pay tuition and fees, or for books, equipment, and supplies. Room and board costs can qualify, too, under some circumstances. The student must have been enrolled at least half-time.

The Educator Expense Deduction

This one is for teachers rather than students. It’s worth up to $250 of expenses you paid out of your own pocket—not a huge amount, but every dollar helps at tax time. Your school cannot have reimbursed you for them. It’s also an above-the-line deduction.

You must teach kindergarten through 12th grade to qualify, or be a principal, aide, counselor, or instructor at an elementary or secondary school. You must work 900 or more hours a year, and the school must be recognized under your state’s laws. Sorry, homeschooling isn’t covered.

Eligible expenses include money you spent on books, computer or classroom equipment, or supplies. Athletic supplies can also qualify if you teach phys ed or health. And if you enroll in a professional development course, you can typically deduct this cost, too, but certain rules apply.

Work-Related Education Costs

It used to be that you could claim a percentage of costs associated with going back to school for work-related purposes, but the TCJA did eliminate this deduction from 2018 through at least 2025. It was repealed along with all other work-related miscellaneous deductions.

This wasn’t a particularly generous deduction to begin with, however. You had to itemize to claim it, and you could only claim the amount of your education expenses that exceeded 2 percent of your AGI. 

College Savings Plans

Tax benefits for education aren’t limited to deductions and credits. The TCJA preserves tax-friendly treatment for education savings as well. This includes 529 savings plans and Coverdell Education Savings Accounts.

Both types of accounts now cover elementary and secondary school expenses in addition to post-secondary school expenses, thanks to the TCJA. 529 plans used to cover only college costs.

You don't have to pay income tax on money you contribute to these plans. The IRS won’t take a bite out of this portion of your income until the money is taken back out again for education purposes. They act something like a tax deduction in the current year as a result. But you typically have a choice. You can pay taxes on your contributions now so distributions can later be taken tax-free. Growth on the money deposited in Coverdell accounts is typically taxed at the time of distribution unless the distributions are less than the student’s actual expenses.

Coverdell account benefits are subject to phase-out thresholds of $95,000 for single filers and $190,000 for married taxpayers who file joint returns. You can contribute $2,000 to a Coverdell account per year per student. You can’t contribute $4,000 into two accounts for the same beneficiary because the limit is imposed per person, not per account. The beneficiary must have special needs or be younger than age 18 at the time you make contributions. 529 savings plans don’t have any contribution limits.

You can’t claim a deduction or credit for expenses paid from college savings plans.

Educational Assistance Benefits and Programs

Educational assistance benefits are amounts paid by your employer for your education. The benefits must typically be used toward tuition, fees, equipment, books, or supplies, either at the undergraduate or graduate student level. The money does not necessarily have to be spent on work-related courses.

Educational assistance programs reduce tuition. Think scholarships or tuition breaks offered to school employees. These funds are generally not taxable unless they’re provided in exchange for work or services, and even then, some exceptions apply.

Up to $5,250 of education assistance benefits are yours tax-free in 2018, but you must pay income tax on any amounts over $5,250…unless the overage is considered a “working condition fringe benefit.” Otherwise, amounts over $5,250 should appear in box 1 of your Form W-2. Fringe benefits are expenses you could have claimed a deduction for had you paid for them personally.

Unfortunately, fringe benefits also fall victim to the TCJA in 2018. They, too, were among the itemized deductions that were repealed. Touch base with a tax professional to make sure you get the rules right if you think your benefits fall into this area.