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A new report from the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) explores the shortcomings and potential reforms of tax breaks that are intended to expand access to postsecondary education. “While delivering student aid through the tax system is a ‘second best’ strategy,” the report argues, “because Congress has chosen to deliver nearly half of non-loan student aid this way, it is essential to make it work better.”

It’s hard to disagree. The report notes that the confusing collection of tax breaks for postsecondary education cost $34.2 billion in 2012, almost as much as the $35.6 billion spent on Pell Grants. But, whereas Pell Grants target lower-income households that could not otherwise afford college, the tax breaks target relatively well-off families who will usually send their children to college with or without any tax incentive to do so.

As the report explains, “…the percentage of high school completers of a given year who enroll in two- or four-year colleges in the fall immediately after completing high school… was 52 percent for low-income families (bottom 20 percent), 67 percent for middle-income families (middle 60 percent) and 82 percent for high-income families (top 20 percent…).” In other words, higher-income families might send their children to college no matter what, while student aid could make the difference between going to college or not going to college for lower-income people. 

Improve and Expand the Best Education Tax Break, Ditch the Others

But not all tax breaks for postsecondary education are the same. Some are more targeted to those who really need them than others, although none are nearly as well-targeted to low-income households as Pell Grants, as illustrated in the bar graph below.

The graph 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 proposal offered in the CLASP report would expand the American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC), represented by the blue bar above, which at least reaches low-income families not helped by the other tax breaks. The costs of the expansion would be offset by eliminating the deduction for tuition and fees, the LLC and the deduction for student loan interest.

In addition to better targeting tax breaks for postsecondary education, this reform would also reduce confusion among families as they try to figure out what aid is available for college. A 2012 report from the Government Accountability Office found that over a fourth of taxpayers eligible don’t take advantage of any tax benefits for education, and those who do use them often don’t use the most advantageous tax break for their situation.

Things Will Get Worse if Congress Doesn’t Act

The AOTC, the most progressive of the education tax breaks (or perhaps it’s better described as the least regressive of the education tax breaks) was signed into law by President Obama in 2009 and extended several times, but was never made permanent. The New Year’s Day deal enacted to avoid the so-called “fiscal cliff” extended the AOTC through 2017. If Congress fails to act before then, it will expire and its precursor, the less targeted Hope Credit, will come back into effect.

The biggest reason why the AOTC is better targeted to low-income families than the Hope Credit is the fact that the AOTC is partially refundable. 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, like the Earned Income Tax Credit.

The proposals described in the CLASP report would expand the refundability of the AOTC, among several other reforms.