What is a Qualified Higher Education Expense (QHEE)?

The term qualified higher education expense (QHEE) refers to money paid by an individual for expenses like tuition, books, fees, and supplies to attend a college, university, or other post-secondary institution. These expenses can be paid by a student, spouse, parent(s), or another party such as a friend or another relative. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) provides individuals with tax incentives with respect to qualified higher education expenses.

Key Takeaways

  • A qualified higher education expense is any money paid by an individual for expenses required to attend a college, university, or other post-secondary institution.
  • QHEEs include tuition, books, fees, and supplies such as laptops and computers, but expenses like insurance and health fees are not eligible.
  • Taxpayers may claim QHEEs under the tuition and fees deduction by using Form 8917 with their completed tax return.
  • Filers may apply for the American Opportunity Tax Credit and the Lifetime Learning Credit as an alternative.

Understanding Qualified Higher Education Expenses (QHEEs)

Qualified higher education expenses are any amounts paid to cover the enrollment of a student at an accredited post-secondary institution. Expenses covered under this category include tuition, books, materials, supplies—including laptops or notebooks—and any other related expenses such as student activity fees. These costs can be paid by cash, check, credit card, or money from a loan.

QHEEs must be paid directly by the student themselves, their spouse, parents, another relative, or friend in order to qualify. These fees may or may not be paid directly to an eligible post-secondary institution. Eligible schools include private, public, for-profit, and nonprofit institutions. All schools send out a Form 1098-T—Tuition Statement for QHEEs to the student for tax purposes.

As mentioned above, QHEEs may provide individuals with a tax break in one of three possible ways. These include:

These tax breaks help reduce the financial burden of attending a college or university and are provided on expenses paid during semesters, trimesters, quarters, or summer school during the tax year or for the first three months of the next tax year.

Special Considerations

As noted above, qualified higher education expenses are defined as tuition, fees, books, supplies, and equipment needed to enroll or attend a level of education beyond high school. These expenses are important because they can determine whether or not you can exclude the interest off of a qualified savings bond from your taxable income. Expenses that do not qualify include insurance, medical expenses, student health fees, transportation, personal living expenses, or fees relating to sports activities.

Taxpayers are able to claim the tuition and fees deduction for their own expenses or for those of a dependent such as a spouse, child, or grandchild. The deduction reduces the taxpayer's taxable income by a maximum of $4,000 and is only available to taxpayers with a modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) of $80,000 or less, or $160,000 or less for married couples filing jointly. Filers must fill out and include Schedule 1 and Form 8917—Tuition and Fees Deduction with their completed federal tax return.

You can use Form 8863—Education Credits to apply for both the American Opportunity Tax Credit and the Lifetime Learning Credit.

Taxpayers may also claim QHEEs for reimbursement under the American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC) or the Lifetime Learning Credit. But these credits are not available to anyone who claims the tuition and fees deduction. The AOTC is capped at $2,500 per student, while the Lifetime Learning Credit is limited to $2,000 per tax return. Filers can use Form 8863—Education Credits to apply for both credits. It's important to note, though, that a filer who qualifies for the Lifetime Learning Credit may also qualify for the AOTC, but the reverse isn't necessarily true.