Maximizing US Tax Breaks When Financing an MBA
By: Shannon Vasconcelos, guest writer and Director of College Finance, College Coach
Getting an MBA is expensive. A typical 2-year full-time program is likely to run you over $100,000, with many of the most selective programs costing in the $200,000 ballpark. And we haven’t even accounted for lost wages yet! If you’ve been thinking about returning to business school, you’re probably well-aware (and maybe petrified by) these numbers. What is less well-known, however, is that the US federal government recognizes that an educated workforce, including educated business leaders, serves a vital public interest, and provides a number of tax incentives to help subsidize the cost of pursuing an MBA. You may be able to defray the cost of business school by taking advantage of one (or more!) of the following tax breaks:
Lifetime Learning Credit
While as an MBA student, you will not qualify for the lucrative American Opportunity Credit that you (or, more likely, your parents) may have taken to help finance your Bachelor’s degree (it is restricted to subsidizing the first four years of a full-time student’s undergraduate education), you may be able to take advantage of the lesser, but still valuable, Lifetime Learning Credit (LLC). The LLC provides an annual 20% tax credit on a student’s first $10,000 of eligible educational expenses, for a maximum credit of $2,000. Eligible expenses include the cost of courses taken while enrolled in a degree-granting program (undergraduate or graduate) or taken to improve job skills (if you want to test out a one-off accounting course before committing to that full MBA). Like most education tax breaks, income limitations apply, and the LLC is anticipated to phase out for single taxpayers making $56,000 to $66,000 in 2017 and $112,000 to $132,000 for those married filing jointly.
Employer Tuition Assistance
If you’re lucky (or strategic) enough to work for an employer who will provide tuition assistance to help finance your MBA, be aware that the first $5,250 of annual assistance is tax-free. Reimbursement provided beyond this amount is taxed as if part of your normal salary (though some employers will spread out the taxation over multiple pay periods to minimize the sting).
Student Loan Interest Deduction
If you’re not so lucky as to receive employer tuition assistance and are instead financing your MBA fully or partially with student loans, you may be able to take advantage of the Student Loan Interest Deduction (SLID). The SLID allows you to deduct up to $2,500 in interest paid annually on qualified student loans. In 2017, eligibility for the deduction is anticipated to phase out between $65,000 and $80,000 of income if single and $135,000 and $165,000 of income if married filing jointly.
529 College Investment Plan
In order to minimize the amount of student loans you need to borrow in order to finance your MBA, you may want to start putting away any savings you can in a 529 College Investment Plan. You get all of the growth of your 529 tax-free as long as you spend it on qualified educational expenses, and many states also allow you to deduct annual contributions made to a 529 on your state tax return, often with no minimum holding period. For example, if you’re a married New York state tax filer who will soon be enrolling in an MBA program, you could contribute up to $10,000 to the NY state 529 Plan today, only to withdraw it in a few months to pay your MBA tuition, and—voila!—you’ve magically reduced your NY state taxable income by a full $10,000. You also get whatever earnings have accrued on your account tax-free on both your federal and NY state taxes. Be aware when withdrawing from a 529 Plan, however, that the IRS does not allow double-dipping: You cannot use the same educational expenses to justify a tax-free 529 withdrawal and claim an LLC. If you have enough educational expenses, you may want to spread out 529 withdrawals in order to allow for sufficient annual out-of-pocket expenses to claim your maximum eligibility in the LLC.
In tax breaks, as in life, knowledge is power. Millions in education tax breaks go unclaimed every year because taxpayers are unaware of their eligibility. Don’t be among the uninformed. Check out IRS Publication 970 for more information than you ever wanted to know about education tax breaks, and, when questions arise, discuss your situation with a credentialed tax preparer.