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Guide to education tax credits and deductions for 2021 taxes

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Whether you’re a college student, a parent helping out your child with their college education or an educator, the costs associated with education can be overwhelming. Fortunately, provisions in the U.S. tax code provide education tax breaks in the form of credits and deductions for the various expenses you incur.

While these tax breaks don’t make up for most of your expenses, they can alleviate some of the sting. So what education expenses are tax deductible and how much can you benefit? Here’s what you need to know when you file your 2021 tax return in 2022.

Education tax credits and deductions at a glance

How much is it worth? Who qualifies? What is the income cap?
Lifetime learning credit Up to $2,000 Taxpayers who pay qualified educational expenses for themselves, their spouse or a dependent Single: $90,000
Joint: $180,000
American opportunity tax credit Up to $2,500 Taxpayers who pay qualified educational expenses for themselves, their spouse or a dependent Single: $90,000
Joint: $180,000
Student loan interest deduction Up to $2,500 in taxable income reduction Taxpayers who pay interest on qualified student loans that they’re legally obligated to pay Single: $85,000
Joint: $170,000
Educator expense deduction Up to $250 in taxable income reduction Educators who pay unreimbursed expenses for their classrooms N/A

Education tax credits for 2021 taxes

American taxpayers can take advantage of one of two different college tax credits to essentially get back some of the money that they paid for postsecondary education. When you file your tax return, you can choose one or the other in the same year, but not both. You can, however, get one credit one year and the other in a different year.

Unlike deductions, which reduce the income amount the IRS uses to calculate how much you owe, tax credits are a dollar-for-dollar reduction of your tax bill. In this way, they’re more beneficial.

Lifetime learning credit

The lifetime learning credit is a tax credit for tuition and fee payments to a postsecondary educational institution, as well as other qualified expenses. The credit is worth 20 percent of your first $10,000 in expenses, up to a maximum $2,000 credit per return. Eligible expenses include tuition and fees.

Keep in mind that you can’t double-dip on benefits — you can’t include expenses that were paid for by scholarships, fellowships, Pell Grants, employer tuition assistance, school refunds or other nontaxable assistance. The same goes for distributions from a 529 plan, Coverdell education savings account or savings bond.

There’s no limit on how many times you can claim the lifetime learning credit, making it a valuable tax break for college students who return to graduate school. Note, however, that you don’t have to be pursuing a degree in order to take advantage of the lifetime learning credit. You can count your expenses incurred to earn a recognized educational credential or to improve your job skills at an eligible educational institution.

The lifetime learning credit is nonrefundable, which means that it can help reduce your tax bill to zero, but you won’t receive any of the excess amount in the form of a tax refund.

To qualify, you must need to be under the education credit income limits. That means having a modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) of less than $90,000 (single filers) or $180,000  (joint filers), although the credit amount is gradually reduced starting at $80,000 (single filers) or $160,000 (joint filers).

American opportunity tax credit

The American opportunity tax credit is available to college students who have not yet completed their first four years of their postsecondary education. Eligible expenses you can count toward the credit include tuition and fees, along with books, supplies and equipment, as long as they’re required for enrollment. But unlike the lifetime learning credit, you can purchase those items from other sources, not just your school.

The amount of the credit is up to $2,500, calculated as 100 percent of the first $2,000 spent on qualified expenses, plus 25 percent of the next $2,000 you spend.

But like the lifetime learning credit, you have to reduce your qualified expenses by the amount of aid you received in the form of scholarships, fellowships, Pell Grants, employer tuition assistance, school refunds and other nontaxable assistance. Distributions from education savings programs are also excluded from your total.

You can use the American opportunity tax credit only for the first four years of your postsecondary education. And because the credit is more generous than the lifetime learning credit, it’s the better option for undergraduate students.

Only 40 percent of the credit is refundable, which means that if it brings how much you owe down to zero, up to $1,000 of the value of the credit can be included in your tax refund.

This credit is available to filers with a MAGI below $90,000 (single filers) or $180,000 (joint filers), but the credit amount is reduced starting at $80,000 (single filers) or $160,000 (joint filers).

Education tax deductions for 2021 taxes

While deductions aren’t as valuable as credits, they can still reduce how much you owe on your taxes or increase your tax refund. Here are a few tax deductions you can take advantage of as a college student, student loan borrower or educator.

Student loan interest deduction

Student loan borrowers can deduct up to $2,500 spent on student loan interest each tax year. To qualify for the student loan interest deduction, you need to:

  • Be legally obligated to make the payments.
  • Have income under a certain amount (which can change every year).
  • Not be married and filing separately or be claimed as a dependent on another person’s tax return.

At the beginning of tax season, if you paid more than $600 in interest over the previous year, you should receive a form from your student loan servicer or lender showing how much you paid in interest during the previous year. You can use this information to calculate the value of your deduction. The deduction is available to borrowers who have a MAGI under $85,000 (single filers) or $170,000 (joint filers), though deduction amounts are phased out for MAGIs over $70,000 (single filers) or over $140,000 (joint filers).

For the 2021 tax year, most federal student loan borrowers likely won’t benefit much from this deduction. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, federal student loan borrowers have not been charged interest on their loans since March of 2020, including the entirety of 2021. However, borrowers with private student loans and federal loans that weren’t included in the CARES Act provision can still benefit if they’ve been making payments.

Educator expense deduction

If you’re a teacher, instructor, counselor, principal or classroom aid, you may be able to deduct up to $250 in unreimbursed expenses for the classroom. Eligible expenses include books, classroom supplies, technology and computer software that’s used to teach students.

Only educators who work with K-12 students qualify for the educator expense deduction, and you must work for an eligible school based on your state’s law and complete at least 900 hours of work during the school year. This means that you won’t qualify if you’re a preschool or college educator or a parent who homeschools their children.

Other college tax benefits

If you’re a parent saving up for your child’s college education, setting aside money in a college savings plan can provide some tax perks.

With a 529 college savings plan, for instance, all of the money you contribute grows tax-free, and any withdrawals you make to pay for eligible expenses are also tax-free. If you make ineligible distributions, though, the money will be subject to income tax and a 10 percent penalty.

What’s more, many states offer their own tax deductions and credits for 529 plan contributions. Check with your state’s 529 plan provider to find out if you’re eligible.

Coverdell education savings accounts function similarly to 529 plans in that contributions grow tax-free and can be taken out for qualified educational expenses tax-free. However, you’re limited to $2,000 in annual contributions per beneficiary. In contrast, 529 plans technically have limits, but they’re set by state and are generally very high.

If you contribute more than the maximum amount, the excess funds will be subject to a 6 percent tax each year in which they remain in the account. Nonqualified distributions are subject to income taxes and a 10 percent penalty.

How has the coronavirus pandemic affected 2021 taxes?

The student loan interest deduction won’t be an option for most federal student loan borrowers this year, since both payments and interest accrual remained paused through May 1, 2022.

As you get ready to file your tax return, consider working with a tax professional to help you navigate your 2021 tax situation.

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Written by
Ben Luthi
Contributing writer
Ben Luthi is a personal finance and travel writer who loves helping people learn how to live life more fully. His work has appeared in several publications, including U.S. News & World Report, USA Today, Yahoo! Finance and more.
Edited by
Student loans editor