Paying for College? Use Tax Credits.

four college students sitting next to each other, in the grass, with spiral-bound notebooks in their laps

College is expensive.  We get it.  Luckily, if you’re a taxpayer who paid for college expenses this year, you might qualify for a special tax credit.  The IRS recently suggested that parents take stock of their situation and see if they qualify for the Lifetime Learning Credit or the American Opportunity Tax Credit.  Not sure about what that entails or how to claim them?  Here’s an overview:

Lifetime Learning Credit (LLC)

The LLC is a nonrefundable education credit for taxpayers who meet certain requirements.  (Wondering if you’re eligible?  Stay tuned.)  Here are a couple facts you need to know about the LLC:

  • Qualified expenses include tuition, attendance fees and enrollment fees for eligible graduate and undergraduate students.  Other expenses may qualify, so talk to your Money Coach or tax adviser.
  • The amount of your LLC is gradually reduced if your Modified Adjusted Gross Income (MAGI) is within a particular range. This range changes each year, so check the IRS for current limits.
  • What if I don’t owe taxes?  Sorry, you’re out of luck.  The LLC won’t benefit you, but the American Opportunity Tax Credit might!

American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC)

While the LLC applies to each tax return, the AOTC is an education credit that applies to each eligible student.  Here are some quick facts about the AOTC:

  • Qualified expenses include tuition and fees paid for eligible students for their first four years of higher education.  As with the LLC, other expenses may qualify, so talk to your Money Coach or tax adviser.
  • The taxpayer’s Modified Adjusted Gross Income must be under the current limit, which can be found on the IRS website.
  • What if I don’t owe taxes? Up to 40% of the AOTC is refundable, which means you could get money back even if you don’t owe taxes!


You qualify for either tax credit if you qualified expenses are paid for an eligible student.  Who’s an eligible student?  You (the taxpayer), your spouse or your dependents.  Whoever the eligible student is, they must be enrolled in a qualifying university, college or vocational school.  Both for-profit and non-profit institutions count.

The easiest way to determine whether or not you’re eligible is to visit the IRS webpage, “Am I Eligible to Claim an Education Credit?”, and use their interactive assistance tool.

Keep in mind that you can only claim one credit per student per year, even if you qualify for both credits.

Claiming Credits

Now, the good part: claiming the credit and getting a tax break for all that money you’ve spent on higher education.  To claim either of the tax credits on your federal income tax return, you must file Form 8863.

But wait, there’s more!  The Lifetime Learning Credit and the American Opportunity Tax Credit aren’t the only tax benefits for higher education.  You can read more about what’s available in Publication 970.

Next Steps

Figuring out your taxes can be a difficult – and annoying – task, but don’t throw away money because of a little added stress.  Our team of Money Coaches includes College Planning Specialists and Tax Specialists who can help you decipher which credit is most beneficial to your situation.  You could even take it one step further and ask your Money Coach about our Tax Preparation Services and member discounts.  Call today for more information.