GAO Reports  
GAO-05-684 July 29, 2005

Student Aid And Postsecondary Tax Preferences:
Limited Research Exists on Effectiveness of Tools
to Assist Students and Families through Title IV
Student Aid and Tax Preferences

Federal assistance helps students and families pay for postsecondary education through several policy tools--grant and loan programs authorized by title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965 and more recently enacted tax preferences. In fiscal year 2004, about $14 billion in grants and $56 billion in loans were made under title IV while estimated outlay equivalents for postsecondary tax preferences amounted to $10 billion. In light of the relative newness and financial significance of tax preferences, this report examines (1) how title IV assistance compares to that provided through the tax code, (2) the extent to which tax filers effectively use postsecondary tax preferences, and (3) what is known about the effectiveness of federal assistance.

Title IV student aid and tax preferences provide assistance to a wide range of students and families in different ways. While both help students meet current expenses, tax preferences also assist students and families with saving for and repaying postsecondary costs. While both serve students and families with a range of incomes, some forms of title IV aid--grant aid, in particular--provide assistance to those whose incomes are lower, on average, than is the case with tax preferences. While both require students and families to fill out forms, tax preferences require more responsibility on the part of students and families because they must identify applicable tax preferences, understand complex rules concerning their use, and correctly calculate and claim credits or deductions. While the tax preferences are a newer policy tool, the number of tax filers using them has grown quickly, surpassing the number of students aided under title IV in 2002. Some tax filers do not appear to make optimal education-related tax decisions. For example, among the limited number of tax returns available for our analysis, 27 percent of eligible tax filers did not claim either the tuition deduction or a tax credit. In so doing, these tax filers failed to reduce their tax liability by $169, on average, and 10 percent of these filers could have reduced their tax liability by over $500. One explanation for these taxpayers' choices may be the complexity of postsecondary tax provisions, which experts have commonly identified as difficult for tax filers to use. Little is known about the effectiveness of title IV aid or tax preferences in promoting, for example, postsecondary attendance or choice, in part because of research data and methodological challenges. As a result, policymakers do not have information that would allow them to make the most efficient use of limited federal resources to help students and families.

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