American Opportunity Tax Credit
$2,500 tax credit per student
(100 percent first $2,000, 25 percent second $2,000)
40 percent refundable (up to $1,000)
Tuition, Fees, Course Materials
Enrolled at least half time,
Seeking a degree or certificate,
no felony drug convictions
Number of Years
4 years of college, 4 tax years
$160,000 to $180,000 (MFJ)
$80,000 to $90,000 (S)
The American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC) is a partially refundable tax credit that provides up to $2,500 per student per year to pay for college.
The tax credit is based on up to $4,000 in eligible higher education expenses, equal to 100 percent of the first $2,000 in eligible expenses and 25 percent of the second $2,000.
Eligible expenses include tuition, fees and course materials. Course materials include textbooks, supplies and equipment. Amounts spent on living expenses (e.g., room and board, transportation and health care) are not eligible. Expenses for sports, games, hobbies and noncredit courses are not eligible unless part of the degree program. College admission application fees and admissions test fees are not eligible.
The American Opportunity Tax Credit is claimed per eligible student, not per taxpayer, unlike the Lifetime Learning Tax Credit. So, parents can claim the tax credit for more than one child if they have multiple children in college.
To be eligible, the student must be enrolled in college on at least a half-time basis for at least one academic term that begins during the tax year. Eligible expenses that are incurred during the first three months of the next year may be counted as though they were paid in the current year.
The student must be seeking a degree, certificate or other recognized education credential. The student must not have a felony drug conviction as of the end of the tax year.
The American Opportunity Tax Credit is limited to four years of college and four tax years for each student.
The income phase-outs are $160,000 to $180,000 for married taxpayers filing jointly and $80,000 to $90,000 for single filers. Married taxpayers who file separate income tax returns are not eligible. The tax credit is reduced prorate within the phase-outs. The income phase-outs are not adjusted annually for inflation.
The American Opportunity Tax Credit, also known as the American Opportunity Credit, previously was the Hope Scholarship Tax Credit.
The American Opportunity Tax Credit was made permanent by the Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes Act of 2015 (P.L. 114-113) and does not expire.
No Double Dipping
Coordination restrictions prevent double-dipping. You cannot use the same expenses to justify both the American Opportunity Tax Credit and another education tax benefit, such as tax-free scholarships or a tax-free distribution from a 529 college savings plan. Thus, you cannot use a qualified distribution from a 529 plan to pay for the tuition and textbook expenses that are used to claim the tax credit. Each must be based on different expenses. Instead, you should use cash or loans to pay for up to $4,000 in tuition and textbook expenses to qualify for the maximum tax credit.
The American Opportunity Tax Credit provides a greater financial benefit per dollar of eligible expenses than any other education tax benefit. Thus, the AOTC should be preferred over other education tax benefits. Most taxpayers who are eligible for the American Opportunity Tax Credit (e.g., income below the income phase-outs) will be at the 25 percent tax bracket or lower. Even considering the 10 percent tax penalty for non-qualified distributions from a 529 plan, the American Opportunity Tax Credit will be worth more than a tax-free distribution from a 529 plan, since the tax savings from a 529 plan is on the earnings portion of the distribution (and thus a small fraction of the eligible expenses), while the tax savings from the tax credit is equal to 100 percent and 25 percent of the eligible expenses.
If the student receives scholarships that cover all or most of the eligible expenses, the taxpayer could always elect to treat all or part of the scholarship as taxable income in order to claim the American Opportunity Tax Credit.
The AOTC is partially refundable. After the tax credit is applied to the taxpayer’s tax liability, 40 percent of any remaining tax credit (up to $1,000) may be refunded to the taxpayer. The tax credit is not refundable if the taxpayer can be claimed as an exemption on someone else’s income tax return.
The American Opportunity Tax Credit can be claimed by either the student’s parents or the student. If the student is claimed as an exemption on his or her parent’s federal income tax return, expenses paid by the student are treated as though they were paid by the parent. If the tax credit is claimed by the student, the student will not be eligible for the partial refundability if he or she can be claimed as an exemption on their parents’ federal income tax return or someone else’s federal income tax return.
If the parents’ income is above the income phase-outs, it might be worthwhile for the student to claim the tax credit, if the student has a tax liability available to offset.
How to Claim the American Opportunity Tax Credit
The American Opportunity Tax Credit is claimed on the taxpayer’s federal income tax return. The taxpayer must file IRS Form 1040 or IRS Form 1040A to claim the tax credit. Taxpayers also must complete IRS Form 8863, Education Credits (instructions), and attach it to their federal income tax return to claim the American Opportunity Tax Credit. Taxpayers should use IRS Form 1098-T, Tuition Statement, to complete IRS Form 8863. They should receive this form from the college by Jan. 31.
The taxpayer and the student must each have a Social Security Number or Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) by the due date of the income tax return to claim the tax credit. Even if the taxpayer and student later get a Social Security Number or ITIN, they cannot retroactively claim the American Opportunity Tax Credit for tax years when either did not have a Social Security Number or ITIN.
It is important to keep copies of documentation relating to the AOTC. If a taxpayer improperly claims the AOTC, they may be required to repay the AOTC with interest and penalties, and can be banned from claiming the AOTC for two years if the claim involved “a reckless or intentional disregard of the rules” and 10 years for fraud.
A good source of additional information is Chapter 2 of IRS Publication 970, Tax Benefits for Education. The statutory language appears in the Internal Revenue Code at 26 USC 25A. The regulations can be found at 26 CFR 1.25A-0, 26 CFR 1.25A-1, 26 CFR 1.25A-2, 26 CFR 1.25A-3, 26 CFR 1.25A-4 and 26 CFR 1.25A-5.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) has published several reports about the American Opportunity Tax Credit and other education tax benefits. Most of these reports concern the complexity of having multiple overlapping education tax benefits, which causes taxpayers to make suboptimal choices concerning which tax benefits to claim.
- STUDENT AID AND TAX BENEFITS: Better Research and Guidance Will Facilitate Comparison of Effectiveness and Student Use, GAO-02-751, September 2002.
- STUDENT AID AND POSTSECONDARY TAX PREFERENCES: Limited Research Exists on Effectiveness of Tools to Assist Students and Families through Title IV Student Aid and Tax Preferences, GAO-05-684, July 2005.
- REFUNDABLE TAX CREDITS: Comprehensive Compliance Strategy and Expanded Use of Data Could Strengthen IRS's Efforts to Address Noncompliance, GAO-16-475, May 2016.
- POSTSECONDARY EDUCATION: Multiple Tax Preferences and Title IV Student Aid Programs Create a Complex Education Financing Environment, GAO-07-262T, December 2006.
- HIGHER EDUCATION: Multiple Higher Education Tax Incentives Create Opportunities for Taxpayers to Make Costly Mistakes, GAO-08-717T, May 2008.
- HIGHER EDUCATION: Improved Tax Information Could Help Families Pay for College, GAO-12-560, May 2012.
- HIGHER EDUCATION: Improved Tax Information Could Help Pay for College, GAO-12-863T, July 2012.