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IRS.gov Website
Publication 970
taxmap/pubs/p970-003.htm#en_us_publink1000204308

Chapter 2
American Opportunity Credit(p8)

taxmap/pubs/p970-003.htm#TXMP75c76ac7Introduction

For 2010, there are two tax credits available to help you offset the costs of higher education by reducing the amount of your income tax. They are the American opportunity credit (this chapter) and the lifetime learning credit (chapter 3).
This chapter explains:
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What is the tax benefit of the American opportunity credit.(p8)

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For the tax year, you may be able to claim an American opportunity credit of up to $2,500 for qualified education expenses paid for each eligible student.
A tax credit reduces the amount of income tax you may have to pay. Unlike a deduction, which reduces the amount of income subject to tax, a credit directly reduces the tax itself. Forty percent of the American opportunity credit may be refundable. This means that if the refundable portion of your credit is more than your tax, the excess will be refunded to you.
Your allowable American opportunity credit may be limited by the amount of your income. Also, the nonrefundable part of the credit may be limited by the amount of your tax.
Deposit
You can choose the education benefit that will give you the lowest tax. You may want to compare the tuition and fees deduction (chapter 6) to either of the education credits.
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Overview of the American opportunity credit.(p8)

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See Table 2-1 for the basics of this credit. The details are discussed in this chapter.
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Can you claim more than one education credit this year.(p8)

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For each student, you can elect for any year only one of the credits. For example, if you elect to take the American opportunity credit for a child on your 2010 tax return, you cannot, for that same child, also claim the lifetime learning credit for 2010.
If you are eligible to claim the American opportunity credit and you are also eligible to claim the lifetime learning credit for the same student in the same year, you can choose to claim either credit, but not both.
If you pay qualified education expenses for more than one student in the same year, you can choose to take the American opportunity and lifetime learning credits on a per-student, per-year basis. This means that, for example, you can claim the American opportunity credit for one student and the lifetime learning credit for another student in the same year.
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Differences between the American opportunity and lifetime learning credits.(p8)

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There are several differences between these two credits. For example, you can claim the American opportunity credit based on the same student's expenses for no more than 4 tax years, which includes any tax years you claimed the Hope credit for that student. However, there is no limit on the number of years for which you can claim a lifetime learning credit based on the same student's expenses. The differences between these credits are shown in Appendix B near the end of this publication.
Table 2-1. Overview of the American Opportunity Credit
Maximum creditUp to $2,500 credit per eligible student
Limit on modified adjusted gross income (MAGI)$180,000 if married filling jointly; $90,000 if single, head of household, or qualifying widow(er)
Refundable or nonrefundable40% of credit may be refundable; the rest is nonrefundable
Number of years of postsecondary educationAvailable ONLY for the first 4 years of postsecondary education
Number of tax years credit availableAvailable ONLY for 4 tax years per eligible student (including any year(s) Hope credit was claimed)
Type of degree requiredStudent must be pursuing an undergraduate degree or other recognized education credential
Number of coursesStudent must be enrolled at least half time for at least one academic period that begins during the tax year
Felony drug convictionNo felony drug convictions on student's records
Qualified expensesTuition and fees required for enrollment. Course-related books, supplies, and equipment do not need to be purchased from the institution in order to qualify.
Payments for academic periodsPayments made in 2010 for academic periods beginning in 2010 and in the first 3 months of 2011
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Can You Claim the Credit(p9)

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The following rules will help you determine if you are eligible to claim the American opportunity credit on your tax return.
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Who Can Claim the Credit(p9)

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Generally, you can claim the American opportunity credit if all three of the following requirements are met.
Note.Qualified education expenses paid by a dependent for whom you claim an exemption, or by a third party for that dependent, are considered paid by you.
"Qualified education expenses" are defined on this page. "Eligible students" are defined later under Who Is an Eligible Student. A "dependent for whom you claim an exemption" is defined later under Who Can Claim a Dependent's Expenses.
You may find Figure 2-1, on the next page, helpful in determining if you can claim an American opportunity credit on your tax return.
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Who Cannot Claim the Credit(p9)

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You cannot claim the American opportunity credit for 2010 if any of the following apply.