The American opportunity credit modifies the existing Hope credit for tax years 2009 and 2010, making it available to a broader range of taxpayers. Income guidelines are expanded and required course materials are added to the list of qualified expenses. Many of those eligible will qualify for the maximum annual credit of $2,500 per student.

The American opportunity credit, in many cases, offers greater tax savings than existing education tax breaks. Here are some key features of the credit:

  • Tuition, related fees, books and other required course materials generally qualify. In the past, books usually were not eligible for education-related credits and deductions.
  • The credit is equal to 100 percent of the first $2,000 spent and 25 percent of the next $2,000. That means the full $2,500 credit may be available to a taxpayer who pays $4,000 or more in qualified expenses for an eligible student.
  • The full credit is available for taxpayers whose modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) is $80,000 or less (for married couples filing a joint return, the limit is $160,000 or less). The credit is phased out for taxpayers with incomes above these levels. These income limits are higher than under the existing Hope and lifetime learning credits.
  • Forty percent of the American opportunity credit is refundable. This means that even people who owe no tax can get an annual payment of the credit of up to $1,000 for each eligible student. Existing education-related credits and deductions do not provide a benefit to people who owe no tax. The refundable portion of the credit is not available to any student whose investment income is taxed at the parent’s rate, commonly referred to as the kiddie tax. See Publication 929, Tax Rules for Children and Dependents, for details.

Eligible parents and students can get the benefit of this credit during the year by having less tax taken out of their paychecks. They can do this by filling out a new Form W-4, claiming additional withholding allowances, and giving it to their employer. For details, use the withholding calculator on IRS.gov or see Publication 919, How Do I Adjust My Tax Withholding?

Though most taxpayers who pay for post-secondary education will qualify for the American opportunity credit, some will not. The limitations include a married person filing a separate return, regardless of income, joint filers whose MAGI is $180,000 or more and, finally, single taxpayers, heads of household and some widows and widowers whose MAGI is $90,000 or more.

There are some post-secondary education expenses that do not qualify for the American opportunity credit. They include expenses paid for a student who, as of the beginning of the tax year, has already completed the first four years of college. That’s because the credit is only allowed for the first four years of post-secondary education.

Graduate students still qualify for the lifetime learning credit and the tuition and fees deduction. For details on these and other education-related tax benefits, see Pub. 970.

IRS forms and publications can be viewed or download

American Opportunity Credit Helps Pay for the First Four Years of College

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