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How to Get the American Opportunity Credit or Lifetime Learning Credit

Students and their parents can claim the American opportunity credit or lifetime learning credit on their taxes for eligible education expenses.
Jan. 30, 2019
Income Taxes, Loans, Personal Taxes, Student Loans, Taxes
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The American opportunity credit and lifetime learning credit are rewards from Uncle Sam for investing in your future each year you’re in school.

You can claim either tax credit for education expenses you paid last year. Your parents can as well, so long as they don’t choose a married filing separately status. You can no longer claim the tuition and fees deduction, which expired at the end of tax year 2017.

The American opportunity credit is specifically for college students, while the lifetime learning credit can be claimed by graduate and vocational students, too. You can claim these tax breaks even if you paid with a student loan.

While there are a few major differences among the education tax breaks, online tax preparation software will help you claim the most valuable one if you’re eligible for both.

American Opportunity Credit

How it works: You can lower your tax bill by up to $2,500 if you paid that much in undergraduate education expenses last year. The American opportunity tax credit lets you claim all of the first $2,000 you spent on tuition, books, equipment and school fees — but not living expenses or transportation — plus 25% of the next $2,000, for a total of $2,500.

Who can claim it: Students or their parents can claim the credit on their taxes for a maximum of four years. Your parents will claim the credit if they paid for your education expenses and you’re listed as a dependent on their return.

You’ll get the full credit if your modified adjusted gross income, or MAGI, was $80,000 or less in 2018 ($160,000 or less if you file your taxes jointly with a spouse). If your MAGI was between $80,000 and $90,000 ($160,000 and $180,000 for joint filers), you’ll end up with a reduced credit. If you earn more than that, you can’t claim this credit.

What it’s worth: The American opportunity credit cuts the amount of taxes you pay. If you owe $3,000 in taxes and get the full $2,500 credit, for example, you’ll have to pay only $500 to the IRS.

This credit is generally more valuable for college students than the lifetime learning credit because it’s refundable. And you can still receive 40% of its value — up to $1,000 — even if you earned no income last year. That means you can get a refund even if you owe no tax.

Lifetime Learning Credit

How it works: You can claim 20% of the first $10,000 you paid toward tuition and fees in 2018, for a maximum of $2,000. Like the American opportunity tax credit, the lifetime learning credit doesn’t count living expenses or transportation as eligible expenses. But you can claim books or supplies needed for coursework.

Who can claim it: The lifetime learning credit isn’t just for undergrads or their parents. The credit applies to undergraduate, graduate and non-degree or vocational students, and there’s no limit on the number of years you can claim it. So it’s ideal for graduate students or anyone taking classes to develop new skills, even if you already claimed the American opportunity tax credit on your taxes in the past.

What it’s worth: You can claim the credit if your MAGI was less than $57,000 ($114,000 if you filed jointly) last year. If your MAGI was between $57,000 and $67,000 ($114,000 to $134,000 if you filed jointly), you can get a reduced credit. You can’t get the credit if your MAGI was more than $67,000 ($134,000 if you’re married and filing jointly).

The lifetime learning credit isn’t refundable, so you won’t receive the credit as a refund if you earned no income.

Should you refinance your student loans?

Tuition and fees deduction

The tuition and fees deduction used to be another option for students and their families. This deduction expired at the end of 2017, but legislation could still extend it for 2018. Check the IRS website for updates.

You couldn’t claim the tuition and fees deduction and an education credit in the same year for the same student. The tuition and fees deduction likely wouldn’t have saved you as much as a credit, but filers who don’t qualify for a credit might want to watch for whether it gets extended.

» MORE: The difference between tax credits and tax deductions

Education tax forms

In January your school will send you Form 1098-T, a tuition statement that shows the education expenses you paid for the year. You’ll use that form to enter the corresponding amounts on your tax return.

If you or your parents also paid student loans, you may be able to deduct student loan interest from your taxable income. If you paid more than $600 in interest, your servicer will automatically send you Form 1098-E. You can still deduct interest if you paid less than $600, but you’ll have to ask your servicer for the form.

» MORE: NerdWallet’s guide to preparing and filing taxes online