College parents are struggling to meet the cost of college these days, to be sure. And federal tax policies could be a lot more family friendly, to be even surer.

Yet, on this Tax Day Eve, with filing to occur no later than midnight tomorrow, it’s probably best to focus on the tax deductions and credits that college parents currently have, rather than the ones we want.

Since tax credits are certainly preferable to deductions, I’ll start by outlining the American Opportunity and Lifetime Learning Tax Credits. But first let me note a proviso: both the deductions and the credits have phased-in income limits on the ability to take full advantage of them, and eventually a hard income ceiling where the deduction or credit disappears.

The American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC) applies to 100% of the first $2,000 of a college student’s annual tuition and fees, plus 25% of the next $2,000. This credit can currently be claimed for up to four tax years, and is allowed when the students is carrying at least half of a full-time load.

Complementing the AOTC is the Lifetime Learning Credit (LLC), which is available for an unlimited number of years and without a requirement to carry a certain course load. This LLC equals 20% of tuition and fees up to $10,000, for a maximum annual credit of $2,000.

According to, “Qualifying expenses for both AOTC and LLC include post-secondary tuition and mandatory fees for you, your spouse and any other person claimed as a dependent on your tax return.”

Unfortunately, the conversation on tax credits is short, and there are income limits, as well as this rather unusual twist: if you are married and filing separately, you are completely ineligible for either AOTC or LLC.

On to deductions, which help you less directly on your taxes owed, but nevertheless are better than nothing. For 2009, you can deduct up to $4,000 of college tuition and fees paid for you, your spouse or any other person claimed as a dependent on your return. This is an “above-the-line” deduction, which means you don’t have to itemize in order to take advantage of the break. Again, however, there are catches, i.e. there is no eligibility if you are married and file separately from your spouse and no deduction is allowed on the tax return of any person who can be claimed as a dependent on another person’s return. And the deduction starts to go away at $65,000 for single filers and $130,000 for joint filers, and is gone completely at $80,000 for single filers and $160,000 for those who file jointly.

So these items comprise your bag of gifts on Tax Day Eve. I wish that I had more to tell you about, maybe next Tax Year.