Congress originally created the Qualified State Tuition Plan, often referred to as the Sec 529 Plan, as a tax-beneficial incentive for parents, grandparents, and others to save money for an individual’s future college tuition and fees. There is no federal tax deduction for making contributions, but taxes on the earnings within a plan are not only tax-deferred while they are held in the account, they are tax-free when withdrawn to pay for qualified education expenses. Thus, the real tax benefit of these plans is the earnings within the plan accumulating tax-deferred and then being tax-free when withdrawn if used for college tuition and related qualified expenses.
Since originating these plans, Congress has continued to modify the purpose of the plans by allowing plan funds to be used for more than just college tuition and fees. Over the years, they have allowed plan funds to be spent on additional expenses, including books, supplies, equipment, reasonable room and board, and computer technology.
Looking back a few years, a taxpayer who had higher education expenses could generally take advantage of four* possible tax benefits: an itemized deduction if the education was job-related, a higher education tuition and expenses tax credit using either the American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC) or the Lifetime Learning Tax Credit (LLC), or an above-the-line deduction for higher education tuition and fees. However, the 2017 tax reforms did away with the itemized deduction through 2025, and Congress allowed the above-the-line deduction for higher education tuition and fees to expire at the end of 2017, leaving only the two education credits as options.
As part of the Appropriations Act of 2020, Congress has retroactively reinstated the above-the-line deduction for 2018 through 2020.
A frequently asked question is, “How might I save for a child’s college education?” The answer depends on how much the education is expected to cost and how much time is left until the child heads off to college or university.
The amount of funds that will be required will depend upon whether your child will be attending a local college, attending a local college and then transferring into a university, or going straight to the university. If attending college locally, you generally only need to be concerned about tuition, and the child can live at home, whereas attending a university, unless it is local, will add the cost of housing and food on top of substantially higher university tuition. Another factor is whether the student will leave school after obtaining a bachelor’s degree or will be doing graduate studies for an advanced degree.
There are actually two higher-education tax credits. The American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC) provides up to $2,500 worth of credit for each student, 40% of which is refundable. The credit is equal to 100% of the first $2,000 of college tuition and qualified expenses and 25% of the next $2,000. The AOTC only applies to the first 4 years of post-secondary education.
The other credit is the Lifetime Learning Credit (LLC), which only provides a maximum $2,000 of credit (20% of up to $10,000 of eligible expenses) per family. None of it is refundable, meaning it can only be used to offset the taxpayer’s tax liability, and any additional credit amount is lost.
Figuring out how to pay for your child’s trade school or college education can be challenging, and the earlier you create your plan and begin executing it, the greater your chances are of having the needed money set aside to pay for it. The government provides a variety of tax incentives to help defray the cost of education. Some require long-term planning to provide the most benefit, while others provide current tax deductions or credits. The benefits generally apply to both vocational schools and colleges.
Recent tax regulations have acknowledged the fact that computers, peripheral equipment, certain types of nonentertainment software, Internet access and related services are essential for postsecondary education. Thus, when those items are used primarily by a beneficiary of a qualified state tuition (Sec 529) plan, the cost of the items can be reimbursed from the plan’s funds, tax-free.