5 Ways to Ease the Pain of College Costs

Before summer is over, most families with a child in college will receive a big bill for tuition and other expenses for the fall semester. The following strategies and tax breaks can help ease the pain of college costs.

  • Make the most of tax-advantaged 529 plans. If you’ve been saving in a 529 college-savings plan, you can use the money tax-free for tuition, room and board, books, fees, and even a computer to benefit the student. As long as your child is a student at least half-time, you can even withdraw money tax-free for the cost of off-campus housing, up to the room-and-board allowance that the college included in the cost of attendance for federal financial aid purposes (ask the financial aid office for the number).

Even if your child has started college, it’s not too late to benefit from 529 contributions. Most states offer a tax break for contributions, and you can withdraw the money tax-free for eligible expenses. Grandparents may also get a tax break for contributing to a 529 in some states. See www.collegesavings.org for each state’s rules. You can use the money tax-free at any eligible college, no matter which state manages the account.

  • Take advantage of tax breaks. If your child is in the first four years of college, you can claim the American Opportunity Credit for the cost of tuition, fees and required books. The amount of the credit is 100 percent of the first $2,000 of qualified education expenses paid for each student, and 25 percent of the next $2,000 — with a maximum credit of $2,500 per eligible student. To claim the credit, your income must be below $180,000 if married filing jointly, or $90,000 for single filers (the credit is reduced if you earn more than $160,000 for joint filers or $80,000 for single filers). Be careful if you’re withdrawing money from a 529, too — you can’t double dip tax breaks and claim the credit for the same money you withdrew tax-free from a 529. But you can claim the credit for expenses you paid with other money.
  • If your child isn’t at least a half-time student or is in graduate school — or if you’re taking some classes yourself — you may be eligible for the Lifetime Learning Credit for the cost of tuition and fees you pay to an eligible educational institution. The maximum credit is 20 percent of the first $10,000 in qualified education expenses, up to a maximum of $2,000 per return. To claim the credit, your modified adjusted gross income must be less than $134,000 if married filing jointly or $67,000 if single. See IRS Publication 970, Tax Breaks for Education at www.irs.gov for details about each tax break.
  • Find out about scholarships. Even if your child has already started college, it’s not too late to find some scholarships to help with the bills for the last few years. Check with the financial aid office at their college, the guidance office at their high school, local organizations, and your employer and professional organizations you belong to — some may offer scholarships for children of employees. For example, the MissionSquare Retirement Public Employee Memorial Scholarship Fund provides scholarships for children of public employees who died in the line of duty (see www.icmarc.org/scholarship for more information).
  • Find out about breaks for repaying student loans. You may be able to deduct up to $2,500 in student loan interest paid for the year, if your income is less than $165,000 for joint filers or $80,000 for single filers (see IRS Publication 970 at www.irs.gov). Also find out about student loan repayment plans, which may let them spread out the payments based on their income or could get their remaining loan balance forgiven if they work for more than 10 years in certain public service jobs. See the Department of Education’s https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/repay-loans Repay Your Loans page, including details about who qualifies for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program.


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