What Is Considered a Tax-Deductible College Expense?

by Gail Cohen

    Nail biting and stress may abound at your home as teens await acceptance letters from one or more colleges. You may experience the same jittery nerves when the thought of tuition comes to mind. Fortunately, help awaits you and your budget at year-end when you prepare to file your tax return. By the time your child is a senior, you could be something of an expert on the topic of deductible vs. non-deductible college expenses.

    One Deduction Fits All

    The federal government sent a love note to beleaguered parents of every college student in the United States when it passed a law allowing a single, $4,000 deduction for families claiming one or more kids as dependents while they attend an accredited college or university. You don’t even have to itemize to claim this “above-the-line” tax break, but there are ground rules that include adjusted gross income limits, 529 plan withdrawals and parents filing individual returns. Also, even if you have a dozen kids in school, you only get one deduction.

    Equipment and Supplies

    You know the drill: The tuition is steep but the supplies and aids needed for labs are steeper. From pricey studio-grade photography equipment to the rental of a high-tech microscope so a budding microbiologist can complete a senior thesis, auxiliary costs weigh heavily on the budgets of parents struggling to cover their child’s educational tab. Course-related books, supplies and equipment are qualified expenses as long as they are considered “a condition of enrollment or attendance” and you paid the institution directly.

    Taking Care of Business

    If an employer agrees to reimburse you for college classes, you could enjoy up to $5,250 worth of tax-free benefits. But perhaps you have no reimbursement agreement -- or your college costs exceed the reimbursement. You can still deduct some of the cost of work-related education as a business expense. There’s a ceiling here and you must itemize to prove your case. On the other hand, if you’re attending college to meet minimum job education requirements or train for a new career, there’s a good chance the IRS won’t allow your claim.

    Student Loan Interest

    It’s the gift that keeps on giving: student loan payments dogging post-graduates for decades. According to the IRS and H&R Block, “You may be able to deduct up to $2,500 of interest payments on a qualified student loan,” if your modified adjusted gross income doesn’t exceed $70,000 or $140,000, for joint filers. The key, again, is your dependent’s status — if you take him as an exemption, you can probably deduct student loan interest. The Department of Education even recognizes some types of room and board as qualified expenses in certain situations, which is why it’s wise to keep receipts in case your return is challenged by the IRS.

    Creative Deductions

    Peruse the IRS website pages detailing college tax deductions and you’ll find predictable lists of items that can’t be used when filing returns. That said, everything’s up to interpretation. Expenses related to sports, games and hobbies are not allowed, but if a child majors in sports, computer game design or home economics, safety equipment not provided by the university, a tricked-out Mac or a knitting machine may be allowable. Verify with a tax expert just to be sure.

    Obtain the Proper Tax Form

    If your eyes blur when you’re confronted with tax forms on display kiosks each tax season, don’t waste your time looking for the one form on which to report your tax-deductible college expenses. Form 1098-T was designed to help taxpayers figure their tuition and fee deductions. According to the IRS, it’s the responsibility of colleges and universities to send out these forms. If yours hasn’t landed in your mailbox by Jan. 31, get your hands on a replacement.

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    About the Author

    Based in Chicago, Gail Cohen has been a professional writer for more than 30 years. She has authored and co-authored 14 books and penned hundreds of articles in consumer and trade publications, including the Illinois-based "Daily Herald" newspaper. Her newest book, "The Christmas Quilt," was published in December 2011.

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