Are Scholarships Tax-Free?

Scholarships are generally tax-free if certain IRS and other requirements are met. Here's what you need to know about when scholarships are taxable.

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Scholarships can be helpful for students and families looking for ways to pay for college. And now that Decision Day has come, many students plan to attend their favorite colleges and universities and probably say yes to a scholarship or two. Meanwhile, a common belief is that scholarships are “free money” (i.e., are not taxable). But that isn’t always the case — scholarship money can sometimes be taxable. Here’s what you need to know.

When scholarships are tax-free: Qualified education expenses

When most people think of scholarships as being “free money,” they are probably referring to the tax-free portion of a scholarship. A general rule is that your college scholarship is tax-free when it is used to pay for “qualified education expenses.” For tax purposes, qualified education expenses typically include tuition, fees, books, and supplies.

Another general guideline is that qualified education expenses are usually limited to items that are required for all students to attend a particular institution. So, for example, if you choose to spend money on a bunch of supplemental things that are not required for a course or by your college or university, those items generally would not be considered by the IRS to be “qualified education expenses." So, knowing what qualified education expenses are is important. 

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Some scholarships have restrictions on what you can use the money for, so it’s good to know upfront if there are any restrictions on your scholarship money. Other scholarships have a wide range of allowable uses for the funds. However, allowable expenditures for a particular scholarship might not necessarily be the same thing as “qualified education expenses” for tax purposes — figuring it all out can get confusing.

IRS requirements for tax-free scholarships 

Whether your scholarship is tax-free doesn’t depend only on qualified education expenses. The IRS has several conditions that must be met. For example, you must be a degree-seeking candidate and attend a “qualified educational institution.”  Also, to be tax-free, the scholarship cannot:

  • Exceed your qualified education expenses. (Sometimes, if your scholarship exceeds the amount of your qualified education expenses, you might have to report the excess amount on your tax return. So, whether your scholarship is tax-free in that example, depends in part on how much scholarship money you received.)
  • Be designated for other non-qualified purposes (like room and board or travel).
  • Represent payment for work or services performed by you as the scholarship recipient.

Is room and board taxable?

Perhaps the most notable of these IRS requirements is that the amount of a scholarship that is used for room and board will generally be taxable. 

Take for example, a situation where you receive a scholarship for $15,000 and you use $8,000 of that money to cover tuition at an eligible education institution, but you use the other $7,000 to cover room and board. The $8,000 for tuition would be tax-free because tuition is a qualified education expense. However, the $7,000 for room and board would be considered taxable income that would have to be reported on your federal income tax return.

That might seem odd because most people might think of room and board as being required for a school or educational program. But again, what might be an education-related expense for you, might not be a “qualified education expense” in the eyes of the IRS.

Are grants taxable?

Grants can be beneficial because they are usually based on need and you aren’t required to pay the money back. The same general rule that applies to whether scholarships are taxable also applies to grants. If you are using grant money to pay for qualified education expenses while you’re seeking a degree at an eligible education institution, the money should generally be tax-free. 

Payment for work or services performed: An example of an exception to the general rule includes situations where money from a grant or fellowship essentially pays your salary. In that case, the money could be considered taxable income, and the college or university involved would issue you a W-2. You would then report the W-2 income on your federal return. The payment for work or services performed exception also could apply to a scholarship if the scholarship money is essentially compensation to you for work performed by you.

What you can do: Education tax credits and deductions 

Whether you are dealing with a scholarship or a grant, if you aren’t sure whether you spent some or all of your scholarship money on qualified education expenses, check with a trusted and qualified tax professional. They can help you sort through your expenses and assess potential tax liability. They can also see if you qualify for other tax credits and deductions that are available to help pay for higher education.

Some federal education tax credits are highlighted below. Keep in mind that you cannot claim both of these education tax credits on a single tax return for the same student, even if you qualify for both. There are also requirements that must be met to claim either of the tax credits.

Education Tax Credits

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Tax CreditAmountEligibility
American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC)Maximum credit of $1,500 per undergraduate student for four years of education.The amount of the credit is 100 percent of the first $2,000 of qualified education expenses you paid for each eligible student and 25 percent of the next $2,000 of qualified education expenses you paid for that student. The full AOTC tax credit is available for people with a modified adjusted gross income of $80,000 or less or $160,000 or less if you’re married and filing jointly. The credit amount is phased out when your income as a single filer falls between $80,000 and $90,000 and between $160,000 and $180,000 for joint filers.
Lifetime Learning Credit:A maximum of $2,000 per tax return that can apply to any level of student (i.e., undergraduate, graduate, professional education, etc.). Unlike the AOTC, the lifetime learning credit isn’t limited to four years of education.The income limits and phase-outs are the same as for the American Opportunity Tax Credit.

You can find more information on the American Opportunity Tax Credit and the Lifetime Learning Credit on the IRS website.


Kelley R. Taylor
Senior Tax Editor,

As the senior tax editor at, Kelley R. Taylor simplifies federal and state tax information, news, and developments to help empower readers. Kelley has over two decades of experience advising on and covering education, law, finance, and tax as a corporate attorney and business journalist.