For post-secondary students the upcoming academic year is going to be unlike anything they have previously experienced. Post-secondary institutions across the country are now determining whether, and to what extent, students should return to in-class learning or whether, at least for the fall semester of the 2020-21 academic year, programs should be delivered entirely through online or remote learning. While some institutions have already indicated that they will be only providing online learning, and a smaller group intends to continue entirely with the traditional in-class model, most universities and colleges have taken a “wait and see” approach, choosing to employ a “hybrid” model which combines in-class learning with online courses.
While the current situation leaves post-secondary students in something of a quandry when it comes to planning their living arrangements in September, there are some aspects of post-secondary education which haven’t changed. Regardless of where and how classes are held, students will have to pay tuition. As well, many will be taking out or extending government student loans to finance their studies. And, fortunately for those students, the tax breaks and credits which were available to them in previous years to help offset the costs of their education will also be claimable for the upcoming academic year, regardless of the form that education takes.
Those tax credits, deductions and benefits which can be claimed by post-secondary students (or their spouses, parents, or grandparents) in relation to the 2020-21 academic year are summarized below.
The good news is that a tax credit continues to be available for the single largest cost associated with post-secondary education — the cost of tuition. Any student who incurs more than $100 in tuition costs at an eligible post-secondary institution (which would include most Canadian universities and colleges) can still claim a non-refundable federal tax credit of 15% of such tuition costs. The provinces and territories also provide students with an equivalent provincial or territorial credit, with the rate of such credit differing by jurisdiction.
The charges imposed on post-secondary students under the heading of “tuition” include myriad costs which may differ, depending on the particular program, and not all of those costs will qualify as “tuition” for purposes of the tuition tax credit. The following specific amounts do, however, constitute eligible tuition fees for purposes of that credit:
- admission fees;
- charges for use of library or laboratory facilities;
- exemption fees;
- examination fees (including re-reading charges) that are integral to a program of study;
- application fees (but only if the student subsequently enrolls in the institution);
- confirmation fees;
- charges for a certificate, diploma, or degree;
- membership or seminar fees that are specifically related to an academic program and its administration;
- mandatory computer service fees; and
- academic fees.
The following charges do not, however, constitute tuition fees for purposes of the credit:
- extracurricular student social activities;
- medical expenses;
- transportation and parking;
- board and lodging;
- goods of enduring value that are to be retained by students (such as a microscope, uniform, gown, or computer);
- initiation fees or entrance fees to professional organizations including examination fees or other fees (such as evaluation fees) that are not integral to a program of study at an eligible educational institution;
- administrative penalties incurred when a student withdraws from a program or an institution;
- the cost of books (other than books, compact disks, or similar material included in the cost of a correspondence course when the student is enrolled in such a course given by an eligible educational institution in Canada); and
- courses taken for purposes of academic upgrading to allow entry into a university or college program — these courses would usually not qualify for the tuition tax credit as they are not considered to be at the post-secondary school level.
Certain ancillary fees and charges, such as health services fees and athletic fees, may also be eligible tuition fees. However, such fees and charges are limited to $250 unless the fees are required to be paid by all full-time students or by all part-time students.
At both the federal and provincial levels, the tuition tax credit is a non-refundable credit, which means it reduces income tax which would otherwise be payable by the student for the tax year in which the tuition fees are paid. Where, as is often the case, a student doesn’t have tax payable for the year (or insufficient tax to use up the full tuition tax credit), credits earned can be carried forward and claimed by the student in any future tax year, or transferred (within limits) in the current year to be claimed by a spouse, parent, or grandparent.
Personal and living expenses
This year, it’s possible that students will not have to move to the city in which their post-secondary institution is located, where that institution chooses to deliver courses using an online learning model only. However, the fact that residence fees or rent for an off-campus apartment won’t have to be paid won’t change anything with respect to the student’s tax position. As has always been the case, living costs incurred by a post-secondary student (whether on campus or off) are characterized as personal and living expenses, for which no tax deduction or credit is allowed.
Most post-secondary students in Canada must incur some amount of debt in order to complete their education, and repayment of that debt is typically not required until after graduation. Once repayment starts, a tax credit can be claimed for the amount of interest being paid on such debt, in some circumstances.
Students who are still in school and arranging for loans to finance their education should be mindful of the rules which govern that student loan interest tax credit, since decisions made while still in school with respect to how post-secondary education will be financed can have tax repercussions down the road, after graduation. That’s because while all interest paid on a qualifying student loan is eligible, without limit, for that tax credit, only some types of student borrowing will qualify. Specifically, only interest paid on government-sponsored (federal or provincial) student loans will be eligible for the credit. Interest paid on loans of any kind from any financial institution will not.
It’s not uncommon (especially for students in professional programs, like law or medicine) to be offered lines of credit by a financial institution, often at advantageous or preferential interest rates. As well, once a student has graduated and begun to repay a government-sponsored student loan, financial institutions will offer to consolidate that student loan with other kinds of debt, also at advantageous interest rates. However, it should be kept in mind that interest paid on that line of credit (or any other kind of borrowing from a financial institution to finance education costs) will never be eligible for the student loan interest tax credit.
As explained in the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) publication on the subject: “ [I]f you renegotiated your student loan with a bank or another financial institution, or included it in an arrangement to consolidate your loans, you cannot claim this interest amount”. In other words, where a government student loan is combined with other debt and consolidated into a borrowing of any kind from a financial institution, the interest on that government student loan is no longer eligible for the student loan interest tax credit.
Students who are contemplating borrowing from a financial institution rather than getting a government student loan (or considering a consolidation loan which incorporates that student loan amount) must remember, in evaluating the benefit of any preferential interest rate offered by a financial institution, to take into account the loss of the student loan interest tax credit on that borrowing in future years.
Credits withdrawn but available for carryforward
Formerly, post-secondary students were able to claim an education tax credit and the textbook tax credit. Both credits were, unfortunately, eliminated as of the end of 2016. It’s important to remember, however, that where education and textbook credits were earned but not claimed in years before 2017 they are still available to be claimed by the student as carryover credits in any subsequent tax year, including after graduation.
Other credits and deductions
There are, as well, a number of credits and deductions which, while not specifically education-related, are frequently claimed by post-secondary students (for instance, deductions for moving costs). The CRA publishes a very useful guide which summarizes most of the rules around income and deductions which may apply to post-secondary students. The current version of that guide, entitled Students and Income Tax, is available on the CRA website at https://www.canada.ca/en/revenue-agency/services/forms-publications/publications/p105.html.
Finally, most post-secondary students count on summer earnings to help offset the cost of their education, or to minimize the amount of debt they must take on to complete that education. This year, of course, it has been nearly impossible for such students to earn summer earnings as they did in previous years. There is, however, a federal government grant, provided as part of the pandemic response plan, which students can claim to help make up that shortfall. That grant program is the Canada Emergency Student Benefit (CESB), which will, generally, provide students who are unable to find work due to the pandemic with $1,250 in taxable income for each four-week period between May and August 2020. There are, of course, eligibility requirements for the CESB and those requirements, along with other program details, can be found on the federal government website at https://www.canada.ca/en/revenue-agency/services/benefits/emergency-student-benefit.html.