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On Tuesday, when the Senate Finance Committee contemplates the patchwork of tax breaks that are supposed to subsidize postsecondary education, they will likely consider ways to streamline these breaks and make them less confusing. That’s a good idea, but it’s not enough. The bigger problem is that too much of these tax subsidies are going to families who are well-off and would send their kids to college no matter what, and too few are going to lower-income families who are likely to send their kids to college only if they can find sufficient assistance.

The current collection of tax breaks can be confusing. A 2012 report from the Government Accountability Office found that more than a fourth of taxpayers eligible for postsecondary education tax breaks don’t take advantage of them, and those who do use them often don’t use the most advantageous tax break for their situation.

But Congress also needs to make these tax benefits more targeted to those households that actually need them to access postsecondary education. That could mean scaling back or eliminating some poorly targeted breaks and beefing up the American Opportunity Tax Credit, which is the best targeted of the bunch.  

It’s not clear that lawmakers will take up this cause, especially given that they are likely to move in the opposite direction by extending the most regressive of these tax breaks, the deduction for tuition and related fees. The deduction for tuition and related fees is among the temporary tax provisions that would be extended for two years under the “tax extenders” legislation approved by the Finance Committee on April 3, with the support of committee chairman Ron Wyden and ranking Republican Orrin Hatch.

Tax Breaks for Postsecondary Education Are Poorly Targeted, and Deduction for Tuition and Fees Is the Worst

A report from the Center for Law and Social Policy explains that unlike the direct federal spending provided through Pell Grants, the tax breaks for postsecondary education overall favor relatively well-off households, as illustrated in the graph below.

The graph below shows that the most regressive of the tax breaks is the deduction for tuition and related fees, followed by the Lifetime Learning Credit (LLC) and the deduction for interest payments on student loans.

One option would be to simply end the practice of providing these subsidies through the tax code and instead increase spending on Pell Grants or other similar assistance. While this would be logical, Congress may be too politically committed to the concept of tax breaks for education to seriously consider this.

There are certainly ways to make these tax breaks work better. The more regressive tax breaks could be scaled back, and the savings could be put toward expanding the American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC). The figures illustrate that the AOTC, first signed into law by President Obama in 2009, is the most progressive of the postsecondary education tax breaks (or perhaps it’s better described as the least regressive of the education tax breaks).

The biggest reason why the AOTC is better targeted to low-income families than the other breaks is the fact that the AOTC is a partially refundable credit. The working families who pay payroll taxes and other types of taxes but earn too little to owe federal income taxes will benefit from an income tax credit only if it is refundable, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit.

Unfortunately, the AOTC is currently scheduled to expire at the end of 2017, when it will revert to a less generous credit that existed before 2009. If lawmakers were serious about making tax breaks for postsecondary education more effective, they would at very least make the AOTC permanent and allow the deduction for tuition and fees to expire as scheduled.