New Changes to College Financial Aid and Education Tax Benefits

In late December 2020, Congress passed the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, another relief package in response to the pandemic. The bill included several provisions related to education, including $22.7 billion for colleges and universities. Here are some key highlights.

Young female student reads financial aid papers in front of a computer laptop.

Simplified FAFSA. The bill accomplishes the long-held bipartisan objective of simplifying the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, starting with the 2023–2024 school year. For example, the legislation significantly reduces the number of overall questions (including eliminating questions about drug convictions and Selective Service status); makes the income protection allowance more favorable for parents and students, which will allow more income to be shielded from the formula; increases the income threshold (from $50,000 to $60,000) to qualify for the simplified needs test, an expedited formula in the FAFSA that doesn’t count family assets; and widens the net of students eligible for a Pell Grant.

However, the FAFSA will no longer divide a parent’s assessment by the number of children in college at the same time. This change has the potential to significantly reduce the amount of financial aid offered to middle- and high-income families who have multiple children in college at the same time.

Goodbye EFC terminology. In the future, the expected family contribution (EFC) will be referred to as the student aid index, or SAI, in an attempt to more accurately reflect what this number represents: a yardstick for aid eligibility rather than a guarantee of what families will pay (families often pay more than their EFC amount).

Expanded Lifetime Learning credit. The bill increased the income limits necessary to qualify for the Lifetime Learning credit, an education tax credit worth up to $2,000 per year for courses taken throughout one's lifetime to acquire or improve job skills. Starting in 2021, a full credit is available to single filers with a modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) below $80,000 and joint filers with a MAGI below $160,000 (the credit phases out for single filers with incomes between $80,000 and $90,000 and joint filers with incomes between $160,000 and $180,000). These are the same income limits used for the American Opportunity credit. To accommodate an expanded Lifetime Learning credit, Congress repealed the deduction for qualified college tuition and fees for 2021 and beyond.

Employer help with student loan repayment. The bill extended a provision allowing employers to pay up to $5,250 of employees' student loans on a tax-free basis for another five years. This provision, included in the Consolidated Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, would have expired at the end of 2020.

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