The 2018 tax law changes eliminated the tuition and fees deduction for college expenses. There are still several ways to save on taxes when saving for and paying for college.

You likely know about the tax benefits of a 529 plan. (To learn more about 529 plans read my colleague’s blog post.) Though there are no tax benefits for contributions to 529 plans, the assets in these accounts grow tax deferred and qualified withdrawals are tax-free. If this sounds similar to a Roth IRA, it is. The added benefit of a 529 over a Roth IRA is that all qualified withdrawals for education are tax free. In a Roth, your contributions (but not earnings) can be withdrawn tax-free and penalty-free for education expenses—or any other purpose for that matter—as long as the 5-year rule has been met. Many investors save into the Roth for the flexibility this provides.

For those that qualify (i.e. income is below limitations) there are other education-related tax benefits. If you take out student loans for your education, the annual interest expense may be deductible up to $2,500. In 2019 for tax payers who file married-filing-jointly, the Modified Adjusted Gross Income (MAGI) phase-out begins at $140,000 and ends at $170,000. For single tax payers, the phase-out is $70,000 to $85,000.

There are also credits for education expense, such as the American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC), where a qualifying tax payer can receive a credit up to $2,500 for qualifying education expenses at colleges, universities, and trade schools. This is a direct credit against your taxes owed, rather than just a deduction on taxable income, and is therefore more valuable. A taxpayer can claim this credit for only the first four years of post-secondary education, and it can be used for expenses associated with tuition, books, and other equipment needed for school. Even if you don’t have a tax liability in a given year, the credit is refundable up to 40% of what is owed to you. The AOTC is completely phased out for married-filing-jointly tax payers with a MAGI over $180,000, or $90,000 for single tax payers.

The Lifetime Learning Credit (LLC) is another education expense credit, though it is slightly less favorable than the AOTC in any given year, as it maxes out at a $2,000 credit. However, unlike the AOTC, there is no limit to how many years you can claim it, making it a good option once AOTC has been used up. You can’t claim both the LLC and AOTC in the same year. The LLC credit is completely phased out at $68,000 for a single tax payer and $136,000 for married-filing-jointly.

What if you are paying school tuition for someone other than yourself or your dependent? If you are a grandparent who’d like to help your grandchild, you can consider funding a 529 for your grandchild. If the account is in your name, it is not considered part of your grandchild’s assets for qualifying for financial aid. However, any distributions used to fund the child’s tuition would be counted as income for the child, and so should be delayed until the student’s junior and senior year if qualifying for financial aid is a concern (FASFA uses prior year tax data).

Additionally, a grandparent could use his or her own funds to send the tuition payment directly to the school. This has the benefit of not counting as a gift for your lifetime and annual gift exclusion, and would not require a gift form on your taxes.

Larry Harris, CPA, CFP®, PFS
Director of Tax Services