Tax Guide For Students & Parents

You Don’t Have to be an Accounting Major to Tackle Your Taxes

Look, I get it: nobody likes taxes.

They’re a headache, they have long forms that nobody really understands on the off, and sometimes you even need to ask someone else for help just to figure them out. We’ve all been there, and it’s easy to empathize.

Still, they’re an important thing to get to know. No, not just because you need to fill your tax forms out every year, but because the International Revenue Service (IRS) could very well owe you some money.

Oh. Well, that certainly got your attention.

Do you want to know more? Read on.

Education Credits & Tax Deductions

Tax credits and deductions let you either pay less in taxes or get a refund for helping a student with their education.

Out of the two, tax credits let you save more since they reduce the amount of taxes you pay by one dollar for each dollar of credit. For example: Say you owe around, say…1500 in taxes, and you get about 350 in tax credits. This would shave 350 dollars off your taxes right away.

Tax deductions, on the other hand, are a little different. Instead of reducing the amount owed, these reduce your taxable income by one dollar for each dollar in deductions. So, for example, say you’re in the 25 percent tax bracket. Each dollar in deductions would shave 25 cents off the total owed. The amount you owe lowers far less because the 1/1 ratio applies to your income rather than what the IRS expects you to pay.

How do you apply your qualified education expenses to these credits and deductions? Well, there are a lot of options – there isn’t just one way. Keep in mind, though, that you can’t normally use the same expenses for multiple deductions or credits.

So what do you do? You pick the tax break that benefits you the most. Some credits or deductions can only be used a certain amount of times, while there are others that are limitless.

I know this sounds pretty intimidating right now, and that’s okay. We’ve all been there, trust me. Just keep reading; I’ll be talking about some common credits and deductions, and I’ll share resources later on that will help you prepare your return.

You got this, okay?

American Opportunity Credit

The American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC) is applicable in two scenarios:

  • A student may claim it if nobody else claims them as a dependent
  • A student’s parent or spouse may claim it if they claim the student as a dependent


  • Who Is Eligible

    In order to be eligible for the AOTC, the student needs to be pursuing a degree or some sort of credential; enrolled at least half time for at least one academic period in the tax year; not claimed the AOTC or not claimed the former Hope Credit for more than four tax years.

    On top of all of that, the student must not have a felony conviction as of the end of the tax year.

    For the full credit, the Modified Adjusted Gross Income (MAGI) must be $80,000 or less for those filing alone or $160,000 or less for those who are filing under “married filing jointly” status.


  • What Qualifies

    Under the AOTC, you are allowed to claim 100 percent of the first $2,000 in qualified education expenses per eligible student per tax year. You can also claim about a quarter (25 percent) of the next $2,000 per student per tax year.

    This tax credit will also offset your tax liability until you reach zero tax due; at this point, any leftover credit is 40 percent refundable.

    Okay, so you can claim “qualified education expenses”, right? What are those?

    Qualified education expenses are things like tuition, fees, books, and supplies. They’re the essentials — things that you absolutely need for your education. Unfortunately, living expenses, health insurance, and other non-education related fees don’t apply here, so you can’t claim those for this credit.


  • How to Apply the Credit

    If you want to claim this credit, you have to use IRS form 8863, which is for education credits – specifically, the American Opportunity and Lifetime Learning Credits.

    It seems a little backwards, but you’re going to need to fill out Part III first. Specifically, you’re going to need to fill out Part III separately for each eligible student. You’re going to need the student’s 1098-T form and a complete tally of all education expenses in order to fill this out.

    After you’re finished with Part III, fill out Part I for the AOTC and write your results on your form 1040 or 1040-A.

Lifetime Learning Credit

The Lifetime Learning Credit (LLC) is applicable in two scenarios:

  • A student may claim it if nobody else claims them as a dependent
  • A student’s parent or spouse may claim it if they claim the student as a dependent


  • Who Is Eligible

    In order to apply for the LLC, the student must take courses at an eligible institution, take courses to improve their job skills, obtain a degree or certification, and must be enrolled in at least one academic period that began during the tax year.

    Please note: If you are claiming the AOTC, you can’t claim the LLC, too. You can only claim one or the other in a single return.

    In order to claim the full credit, your MAGI must be $52,000 or less if you’re filing alone, or $104,000 if you’re filing under “married filing jointly” status.


  • What Qualifies

    Under the LLC, you are allowed to claim 20 percent of the first $10,000 of qualified education expenses per tax credit. This is a non-refundable credit, so you have to have a tax liability in order to claim it.

    Much like with the AOTC, qualified education expenses include things like tuition, fees, books, and supplies. Living expenses don’t count, so you can’t claim them for this credit.


  • How to Apply the Credit

    If you want to claim this credit, you have to use IRS form 8863, which is for education credits – specifically, the American Opportunity and Lifetime Learning Credits.

    Like with the AOTC, you’re going to need to fill out Part III first. Specifically, you’re going to need to fill out Part III separately for each eligible student. You’re going to need the student’s 1098-T form and a complete tally of all education expenses in order to fill this out.

    After you’re finished with Part III, fill out Part I for the AOTC and write your results on your form 1040 or 1040-A.

Tuition and Fees Deduction

The Tuition and Fees Deduction credit lets you deduct qualified education expenses for a student who fits the proper criteria. This includes:

  • Your spouse
  • Your dependent
  • Yourself (so long as someone else can’t claim you as a dependent)

Students filing under the “married filing separate” status do not qualify for this credit.

  • Who Is Eligible

    Unlike the AOTC and LLC, you don’t have to use itemized deductions in order to claim this credit. Instead, you must have a MAGI of $65,000 or less if you’re filing under “single” status, or $130,000 or less if filing under “married filing jointly” status.

    You and your spouse also must not be a non-resident alien for any part of the tax year, unless you elected to be treated as a resident alien for tax purposes.

  • What Qualifies

    For this credit, you can deduct up to $4,000 in qualified education expenses.

    You cannot double-dip with this one – expenses you use for this credit can only be used for this credit per tax year. You can’t apply the same expenses to this credit and another on the same return.

    Qualified expenses, in this case, are expenses considered necessities for your education (books, supplies, activity fees, and the like) at a qualified institution. Said qualified institutions are determined by their eligibility to participate in a student aid program administered by the US Department of Education.

  • How to Apply the Deduction

    For this deduction, you’ll need to complete IRS Form 8917 (Tuition and Fees Deduction). After you complete the form, enter the amount from 8917 Line 6 to one of the following places:

    • Line 34 of Form 1040
    • Line 19 of Form 1040A

Employer-Provided Educational Assistance

This one is purely dependent on where you work. Whether or not your employer’s educational assistance is tax-free depends entirely on how they structure their program.

  • Who Is Eligible

    In order to be eligible, your employer’s educational assistance program has to… well, be considered an educational assistance program by the IRS. In order to figure that out, though, you’re going to have to ask your employer first.

    If you do qualify through your employer’s program, you just have to make sure you spend the money according to the eligibility rules.

  • What Qualifies

    In order to qualify, you need to fulfill a few select criteria.

    First, the assistance you receive must be paid towards educational necessities. So books, tuition, necessary equipment, fees, and the like. The education doesn’t necessarily have to be work-related, or part of a degree program, but expenses paid on courses involving sports, games, or hobbies (unless they’re either directly related to your employer’s business or required as part of a degree program) do not apply to this credit.

    If you qualify, you can have up to $5,250 of these benefits/expenses tax-free.

    Also, you can’t claim other tax credits or deductions with the expenses paid with money you’ve received tax-free from this benefit.

  • How This Applies to My Taxes

    You don’t apply this deduction on your own – instead, your employer will simply not report up to $5,250 in eligible expenses on your W-2 as wages.

    Okay, let’s have an example. Say, for instance, you earn $50,000 in wages, and you have $5,000 in eligible education expenses paid by your employer through their educational assistance program. Your W-2 would still only report $50,000 in wages, even though they technically paid you $55,000 this tax year.

    Because the number of benefits paid through the educational assistance program was less than $5,250 during the tax year, that $5,000 was not counted. That said, if you were paid more than $5,250 for your education, the difference would be considered taxable and would be added to your wages.

    So, if you earned, say, $6,000 in educational assistance benefits from your place of employment during the tax year, only $750 would be added to your wages instead of the full $6,000.

    The only exception to this rule is if the expenses that hit above the $5,250 mark are considered a working condition fringe benefit.

Scholarships, Fellowship Grants, Grants, and Tuition Reductions

Students may be able to exclude income from scholarships, fellowship grants, grants, and tuition reductions if they end up meeting specific criteria.

  • Who Is Eligible

    The student in question must be seeking a degree from an eligible educational institution. There are no income limits for these reductions, and the only person who qualifies is the one receiving benefits.

  • What Qualifies

    Your scholarships, fellowship grants, and grants are only tax-free if they fit the following criteria:

    • The amount received in benefits is less than or equal to your qualified education expenses
    • It’s not designated for non-qualified expenses (such as room and board)
    • It’s not a form of payment for teaching, research, or other services that must be done to obtain a scholarship or grant

    For the record, things like room and board, travel, research, or other expenses not really necessary to attend an eligible educational institution, do not qualify as tax-free expenses.

    Tuition reductions may end up tax-free if you fulfill certain criteria. For students studying below the graduate level, you need to fit in one of these four categories:

    • Employee of the institution providing the benefit
    • Former employee of the institution who has either retired or left on disability
    • Widow or widower of someone in one of the previous two categories
    • The dependent or spouse of someone in one of the other three categories

    If you’re a graduate student, tuition reductions are tax-free if they’re provided by an eligible institution and you either teach or do research for the institution where you’re studying.

  • How This Applies to My Taxes

    For these, you will not be applying for a credit or a deduction. Instead, you won’t report the income from qualifying scholarships, fellowship grants, or grants on your tax return.

    If you want to figure out how much you should not include in your income for the tax year, use Worksheet 1-1 (Taxable Scholarship and Fellowship Grant Income). If you’re dealing with tuition reductions, you’ll need to read the Qualified Tuition Reduction section in Chapter 1 of IRS Publication 970 to figure out how much you should exclude in your income.

Tax-Free Tuition Savings Plans

Tax-Free tuition savings plans are another way to save money on your education expenses and tend to result in tax-free distributions. Contributions may normally be non-deductible, but what you earn grows tax-free if they’re used for qualified education expenses…at least in most cases, anyway.

Qualified Tuition Program (QTP)

You might be familiar with Qualified Tuition Programs (QTPs) as section 529 plans.

QTPs let contributors prepay qualified education expenses or deposit money into an account that will eventually be used to pay said expenses. It’s true that what you stick in these accounts don’t qualify for deductions or tax credits, but all future earnings will grow tax-free, just so long as the money’s in the account.

The only way these earnings become taxable is if you don’t use them to pay qualified educational expenses at a qualified educational institution.

Obviously, contributions can’t exceed the amount necessary to pay for qualified higher education expenses.

Coverdell Education Savings Account (ESA)

These are trust or custodial accounts created paying for a very specific person (called a beneficiary)’s qualified education expenses.

These accounts must be set up as an ESA, the beneficiary must be a minor or have special needs, and there must be a document in writing to create and govern the account. Funds in this account must also be used or transferred to another beneficiary by the time they turn 30.

Contributions made to an ESA are non-deductible, but you can’t contribute more than $2,000 per year to a single beneficiary’s account.

Distributions from this account are tax-free, so long as they’re used for their intended purpose. If they’re used for something other than educational expenses, they may end up as taxed income.

Education Exception to Additional Tax on Early IRA Distributions

If you want to distribute the funds from an Individual Retirement Arrangement (IRA) account (so long as you are under the age of 59½) usually requires a payment of 10% additional tax as a penalty for withdrawing it early. That said, it can be waived if the distributed funds were used for qualified education expenses.

Unfortunately, you will still need to pay the typical income taxes on these, if applicable.

In this case, “Qualified Education Expenses” include things like tuition, fees, books, supplies, and whatever equipment you would need to attend an eligible institution. If you’re attending at least half-time, room and board may also be eligible.

These expenses only qualify if you pay for you, your spouse, your child, or their descendants.

Education Savings Bond Program

If you have Series EE and Series I bonds that were issued after 1989, then you might be able to exclude any interest redeemed from them if you used the money to pay for qualified higher education expenses during the year.

This benefit can only be fully claimed if the claimant has a MAGI of $77,200 (filing single) or $115,750 (married filing jointly).

If you want to calculate the non-taxable interest, you can fill out IRS Form 8815 (Exclusion of Interest From Series EE and I U.S. Savings Bonds Issued After 1989).

Other Tax Breaks For Education-Related Expenses

Student Loan Cancellation

If you want the tax-free treatment, you need to have a qualified loan made by a qualified lender, and use the money to attend a qualified institution. It also must have a provision that says that part or all of the debt will be cancelled if you meet specific criteria.

If you want to know more, see IRS Publication 970 chapter 5.

Refinanced Loans

A refinanced loan may qualify as a tax break, too. If it’s made from an eligible educational institution or a tax-exempt organization, and the loan encourages students to work in a career or area that has unmet needs.

Services must be provided for a governmental unit or tax-exempt 501(c)(3).

Student Loan Repayment Assistance

Repayment assistance is tax-free if it’s received by the National Health Service Corps Loan Repayment Program. This is a state education repayment program that provides increased availability of health services in undeserved or health professional shortage areas.

IRS Forms Students & Their Families May Need

We get it: IRS Forms can be pretty intimidating, and with the sheer dearth of forms, it’s hard to consider where to start so you can file your taxes.

Here are a few that you may need, just to start with:

Form 1040EZ

This is the individual income tax form at its absolute simplest. You can’t file this form if you have student loan interest deductions, any other deductions, or credits related to your education.

Form 1040A

This is the middle ground between 1040EZ and 1040. With this form, you can claim education credits, at least.

Form 1040

This is the most complex version of the Individual Income Tax Return form. You can note all manner of credits and deductions (that you qualify for, of course!) when you use this form.

Form 8863

You should use this form if you qualify for the American Opportunity Tax Credit or the Lifetime Learning Credit.

Form 8917

You should use this form to calculate the tuition and fees deduction.

If you want to fill out the forms listed above, you’re going to need extra information. This usually comes on the official tax forms listed below:

Form W-2

This is the wage and tax statement that all employers have to send to their employees come tax time.

Form 1042-S

This is a wage statement for non-resident or international students for taxable or non-taxable earned income.

Form 1099-MISC

This is a tax statement for miscellaneous income, such as: Contract or Freelance pay, tips, and other untaxed income.

Form 1099-DIV

This is a tax statement that financial management companies must send to their clients who own stocks, bonds, or other investments.

Form 1099-INT

This is a tax statement that you’ll receive from your bank. This shows the amount of interest earned in the current tax year.

Form 1098-T

This is a tuition statement that your college or university should send showing the amounts paid for qualified tuition and related expenses.

Form 1098-E

This is a student loan interest statement that lenders will send you to show exactly how much you paid in student loan interest.

Foreign Students Studying in U.S. May Need to File IRS Tax Forms

When someone says “International Student”, this can mean a US resident studying somewhere outside of US soil, or a non-US resident studying in the US.

Let’s take a look at foreign students. The go by a tricky set of rules, and it’s important to keep your ducks in a row, especially when dealing with taxes.

3 Situations Where Foreign Students Should File Tax Returns

You almost certainly should file a tax return if you (an alien student / scholar) receive income from any of these three sources:


A scholarship or fellowship is taxable if it:

  • Exceeds your qualified education expenses
  • Its terms don’t require you to use it for education purposes
  • It isn’t payment for teaching, research, or something similar.

For more information, see IRS Publication 970 Chapter 1.


If you worked at a job outside of school – such as in the retail or service industries – your income may very well be taxable and you should definitely file a tax return.

For more information, see IRS Publication 519 Chapter 2.


Income exempt by treaty is…a little different.

You should receive a notice from whoever you’re getting the income from that the funds you’re receiving are tax-exempt. If you think they are, it’s best to contact the payer or an experienced tax professional to confirm whether they’re exempt or not.

For more information, see IRS Publication 901.

Income that isn’t taxable because of a treaty must be reported on a U.S. income tax return, even though no income tax is due.

6 Situations Where Foreign Students Don’t Need to File Tax Returns

Non-resident Alien students may not need to file a tax return if their only income came from one or all of five sources.

You May Not File if Your Income Is From These Sources

  • Foreign sources
  • Foreign employer if you have a “F,” “J,” or “Q” visa
  • Interest income from a U.S. bank, S&L, credit union or insurance company
  • Investment that generates portfolio interest
  • A tax-free scholarship or fellowship
  • Any other income the IRS considers nontaxable

Do you want to learn more about the income and tax filing rules for foreign students and scholars?

Read on.

Which Tax Form Should Alien Students Use?

If you need to file a tax return, you’re probably going to end up fretting over which tax form that you need to use.

The answer to that question is…well. It honestly depends on whether you’re considered a Resident Alien or a Nonresident Alien.

People who live in the U.S., but are not considered citizens, are classified as aliens.

Resident Alien

If you’ve completed your visa applications properly, you are most definitely a Resident Alien.

To make this a bit clearer, to be a Resident Alien, you need to fulfill two conditions:

  • The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) issued you a Form I-551, or a “green card”.
  • You have a “substantial presence” in the U.S.; you have a “F,” “J,” “M,” or “Q” visa.

Resident Aliens need to file either a Form 1040, 1040A, or 1040EZ.

Nonresident Alien

You are considered a Nonresident Alien if you do not have either of the following:

  • The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) issued you a Form I-551, or a “green card”.
  • You have a “substantial presence” in the U.S.; you have a “F,” “J,” “M,” or “Q” visa.

Nonresident Aliens need to file either a 1040NR or 1040NR-EZ.

Which Income Should Alien Students Report?

This is a bit of a tricky issue. Really, what income you should report depends on whether or not you’re a Resident or Nonresident Alien.

Resident Alien

Resident aliens report their entire worldwide income on their Income Tax Return.

A student can claim income exclusions, as mentioned in the section “6 Situations Where Foreign Students Don’t Need to File Tax Returns”.

Nonresident Alien

This is a bit more complicated.

In short, what income you report on your tax return depends on what kind of income you’re making.

The IRS separates the kind of income that nonresident aliens make in two categories: FDAP or ECI income.

Depending on which category you fall in depends on how much tax you’ll end up having to pay.

Fixed, Determinable, Annual, or Periodical (FDAP)

FDAP income is fixed when it’s paid in expected amounts.

Examples of this include interest, dividends, rents, royalties, and other kinds of passive investment income.

If you’re making FDAP income, you report it on page 4 of Form 1040NR.

Effectively Connected Income (ECI)

ECI applies if you earn income as an employee, or earn a profit as a business owner while you’re physically in the U.S.

You report ECI on page 1 of Form 1040NR.

Nonresident Alien Students & Capital Gains

Okay, before we move on, let’s first do a brief go-over on what capital gains are. This probably won’t apply to most nonresident alien students, but it’s important to know just in case the rules do end up applying to you.

Misreporting your taxes can cause a lot of problems, and it’s good to just be safe, right?

A capital gain is the accounting term for the profit you get when you sell something for higher than you bought it for. A capital loss is the direct opposite of a capital gain.

Admittedly, Capital Gains and losses usually just apply to stocks, bonds, and property, but it could be almost anything. Each country taxes capital gains and losses a little differently.

Nonresident Alien students in the U.S. might be subject to U.S. capital gains taxes, or their own home country’s taxes. Who gets to tax your capital gains will depend on several things, including:

  • How long you’ve (physically) been in the U.S.
  • Whether you’ve received a U.S. scholarship
  • If you were employed in the U.S.
  • The amount of your capital gains or losses

You’re going to want to consult a tax professional if you made or lost a lot of money selling something you owned while studying in the U.S., just to see if the tax laws apply to you.

How Many Exemptions Can a Foreign Student Claim?

Resident Alien

Resident Aliens can use the same exemptions as U.S. citizens if they use Schedule A of Form 1040.

If you don’t want to itemize, you can always claim the standard deduction.

Nonresident Alien

Nonresident Aliens can only claim one personal exemption unless someone in the U.S. is claiming you as a dependent on their tax return. In that case, you’re not going to be able to claim any personal exemption at all.

There are exceptions to the alien exemption rules for

  • Canadians
  • Mexicans
  • South Koreans
  • Residents of India
  • Students who claim dual citizenship

U.S. Citizens Studying Abroad Need to File Tax Returns

If you’re a U.S. student studying abroad, you’re still going to need to file your taxes.

The rules are the same as if you were in the U.S., since any income earned, regardless of where you earned it, is considered taxable. That said, you’re going to need to file in dollars, so be sure to convert any foreign currency values to U.S. dollars using the yearly average foreign exchange rate.

Where Students Can Find Free Preparation Tax Advice

I know that it may be tempting to just throw your tax return together, shove it in the mailbox (or, if you’re filing electronically, fill out the Wizard forms) and call it a day. Nobody wants to deal with taxes, especially when you have school and everything else to deal with.

You may want to find someone to help you navigate this tax mess, though, especially when you’re a student with very little energy and even less free time.

College Career Services

If you’re having some trouble with what to do on your taxes, try calling the College Career Services at your school to see if they offer tax preparation assistance or advice.

If they don’t, that’s okay. They’ll probably be able to point you to someone who can.

Campus International Office

Many Campus International Offices will have resources set aside to help international students figure out their taxes.

You may want to give them a call and see what they offer before you walk into their office, though.

Fraternities/Sororities (may offer volunteer prep assistance)

This may be surprising, but fraternities and sororities can offer tax assistance and help. For a good chance of finding one who can, check with your college or university to see what business or accounting-related Greek organizations are on campus.

Campus tax workshops and seminars

During the spring semester – I.E., tax time – check to see if your campus is offering some seminars to help you out with your taxes. It may be advantageous to poke your head in and ask a lot of questions during the Q&A session.

Local IRS Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (local campus may house IRS VITA volunteers)

Your school or local community may have a Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program that you can visit and get help from. They offer assistance to those who make less than or equal to $54,000 per year and are staffed by IRS-certified volunteers.

They offer free basic tax prep.

Free File

The IRS provides resources on their website about how you can file your taxes for free.

Glossary: 20 Tax Terms Students Need to Know


Putting money in a particular account – usually a tax-advantaged account – for the purpose of paying future education expenses.


This is usually money provided to aid someone in bettering their education or their research. This may be tax free, provided certain conditions are met.


Reduces the amount of tax you owe by one dollar for each dollar of tax credit you receive. This may be refundable.


This is a deduction for each dependent that lowers taxable income. For 2015, exemptions are $4,000 per qualified dependent, except for those who reach the Personal Exemption Phaseout (PEP) threshold.


This is “Modified Adjusted Gross Income”. It’s the result of adding back certain deductions to you Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) and is used while calculating certain tax items.


This is a qualifying child or a qualifying relative. Use the IRS “Who Can I Claim as a Dependent?” Interactive Tax Assistant to learn if you can claim someone as a dependent.

Loan cancellation

This nullifies debt owed on student loans after meeting certain requirements. It may result in taxable income on your tax return.


This reduces your taxable income by one dollar for each dollar of qualified tax deductions claimed. It also reduces your tax liability based on your tax rate.


This means you’re putting something off. In this context, it often refers to temporarily postponing federal student loan payments until a later date.


A portion of the money withheld for taxes in excess of your actual tax amount owed to the government that’s givin to you after filing.


This is an amount of money paid to you for the money you already spent. For instance, education expenses that employers pay you for.


This is when you take money out of a particular account — usually a tax advantaged account — to pay education expenses.


This term is used for when you submit a Federal Tax Return, whether electronically or through the mail.


A form the IRS provides that you must fill out with your tax return if you have certain tax situations such as a particular type of income or credit.


Not allowing expenses in relation to tax credits or tax deductions or excluding a person from qualifying from a credit or deduction.


The amount of money spent to pay for something. EX: the amount of money spent on tuition is often considered an education expense.


Something that is subject to tax. For instance, taxable income is income on which tax must be paid.


A resource provided by the IRS to aid in calculating information in order to determine a situation or compute a number in relation to taxes.


Often refers to an individual retirement arrangement (IRA) account that has been funded from a previous workplace’s retirement account such as a 401(k).


Definition varies. For the Lifetime Learning Credit, an eligible student must be enrolled in one or more courses at an eligible educational institution.

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