Teachers College, Columbia University

Tax Benefits for College Attendance

By Susan Dynarski & Judith Scott-Clayton

National efforts to promote college enrollment are increasingly delivered through tax-based assistance, including tax credits and deductions for tuition and fees, tax-advantaged college savings plans, and student loan interest deductions. This NBER working paper outlines the main tax-based student aid programs and describes their history and growth over time, providing an economic perspective on tax-based student aid, and an assessment of their impact on student behavior.

The authors conclude with a discussion of what the tax system does particularly well and what it does particularly poorly in comparison with traditional Department of Education–based student aid programs and highlight opportunities for productive reform. At a minimum, a simpler system of education tax benefits would decrease the administrative and time costs of transferring funds to households with postsecondary expenses. At best, simplification would clarify incentives and increase investments in human capital.