The Tuition and Fees Tax Deduction—Its Status and How to Qualify

This deduction has been reinstated through the 2020 tax year

Group of friends looking at a diploma
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The federal tuition and fees deduction allows you to subtract the cost of college tuition and other education-related fees and expenses from your taxable income "above the line." These deductions, along with any other similar adjustments to your income, determine your all-important adjusted gross income (AGI).

The tuition and fees deduction is in effect for the 2020 tax year, but its future is uncertain. Here's what you need to know about this deduction and your eligibility.

The Tuition and Fees Deduction Is Set to End After 2020

The tuition and fees deduction has been on unsteady footing since the passing of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) in 2017. That legislation ended this tax break. However, Congress revived the deduction the next year with the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 (BBA). The BBA retroactively renewed it for the 2017 tax year, but the deduction was set to expire at the start of the 2019 tax year.

After that, the Taxpayer Certainty and Disaster Relief Act of 2019 reinstated the deduction through the 2020 tax year. The deduction is set to expire once again after the end of the 2020 tax year—unless another round of legislation changes that.

Where to Report the Tuition and Fees Deduction

The deductions for these tuition costs and fees are reported on Schedule 1 of Form 1040. You'll also use Form 8917 to detail and calculate your deduction.

Another impact of the TCJA was that the IRS redesigned Form 1040.

These adjustments to income are particularly advantageous because you don't have to itemize to claim them. Itemizing became less common after the TCJA nearly doubled the standard deduction.

You can claim tuition and fees deductions and itemize your taxes, or you can claim the tuition and fees deductions and take the standard deduction. Adjustments to income determine your AGI, and that's important because several other tax breaks and your overall tax bracket depend on your AGI. Some tax advantages are phased out or eliminated as your AGI grows.

​Finding Information on Form 1098-T

You should receive Form 1098-T from the education institution that applies to the deduction. The amount you paid will appear in box 1, while the amount that the school actually billed you appears in box 2. This difference is an important distinction.

You must use the amount that appears in box 1—this is what you actually paid. It can be different from the number that appears in box 2. For instance, you might pay in advance for expenses incurred in the first three months of the next calendar year, so those extra payments would be reflected in box 1, but not box 2.

Enter the information on IRS Form 8917 and on your Form 1040. Submit Form 8917 with your tax return.

Schools also report your qualifying expenses to the IRS on Form 1098-T. 

Qualifying Rules for the Deduction

This deduction is available to taxpayers who paid tuition and other required fees for attending college or another post-secondary school. Parents can deduct tuition for their child as long as the student was their dependent. You can also claim this deduction for your own education expenses. Those who are married and file jointly can claim this deduction if one of the spouses attended school.

The tuition and fees adjustment to income can't be claimed by married couples who file separate tax returns, by taxpayers who can be claimed as someone else's dependent, or by nonresident aliens who have not elected to be taxed as resident aliens.

Expenses related to student activities and sports generally aren't deductible. Nor are fees for room and board, health insurance, transportation, or courses that aren't required to achieve a degree. However, some costs associated with activities and athletics may be deductible if they're required by the school or directly tied to a student's chosen career path.

The maximum amount you can claim for the tuition and fees adjustment to income is $4,000 per year. The deduction is further limited by income ranges based on your modified adjusted gross incomes (MAGIs). High-income individuals may find that they don't qualify for this deduction. Check the chart below for a breakdown of the thresholds in the 2020 tax year.

2020 Tuition and Fees Deduction Thresholds
MAGI Maximum Deduction
$65,000 or less ($130,000 if married) $4,000
$80,000 or less ($160,000 if married) $2,000
More than $80,000 ($160,000 if married) $0

Choosing Educational Tax Advantages

There are two other major tax advantages related to higher education, the American Opportunity Credit and the Lifetime Learning Credit. You need to be careful about which one you claim—they each have their benefits and drawbacks, and you can't claim multiple benefits for the same expense.

You might want to prepare your return multiple ways to see which credit or deduction is most advantageous for you.

Filing an Amended Return

You can file an amended return up to three years after you filed your original return, or up to two years after you paid the tax due for that year, whichever is later. If you missed this deduction in 2018 or 2019 because of uncertainty around whether the deduction was still allowed, you can now go back and take advantage of it. These amendments can be made by filing Form 1040-X.

Article Sources

  1. Internal Revenue Service. "Extended and Expired Legislation." Accessed Oct. 26, 2020.

  2. USA.gov. "Tax Law Changes." Accessed Oct. 26, 2020.

  3. Internal Revenue Service. "Questions and Answers About the 2018 Form 1040." Accessed Oct. 26, 2020.

  4. Internal Revenue Service. "Be Tax Ready – Understanding Tax Reform Changes Affecting Individuals and Families." Accessed Oct. 26, 2020.

  5. Internal Revenue Service. "Form 8917 Tuition and Fees Deduction," Page 2. Accessed Oct. 26, 2020.

  6. Internal Revenue Service. "Compare Education Credits and Tuition and Fees Deduction." Accessed Oct. 26, 2020.

  7. Internal Revenue Service. "File Form 1040-X to Amend a Tax Return." Accessed Oct. 26, 2020.