Attention MBA Admits: 3 Tuition Hacks That Will Save You Big $

Being admitted to an MBA program is very exciting. You’ve worked hard on your application for months, completed the interview process, and now you’re celebrating after getting into an amazing school. Then, you’re suddenly facing the reality of paying your first tuition bill. While you have very likely considered how you were going to pay for the degree, whether that involved employer-support, scholarships, taking out loans, or some combination, there is still a little sticker shock when you actually put down your enrollment deposit and prepare to pay your first term’s tuition.

I am a newly admitted MBA student in the Northwestern Kellogg Evening and Weekend Program. Last year, my spouse went back to grad school to pursue a career in mental health counseling and this year I decided to pursue an MBA. My husband and I both wanted to avoid further student loans, so I researched ways to help cash flow grad school and to help reduce overall costs of attending school. These are the best tax-related education credits and strategies that I found that can be used to pay for school. We used some of these tax-related strategies to help fund my spouse’s grad school and now my MBA.  These are my top 3 tax hacks for funding an MBA and all of them can be used for both full time and part time students.

Disclosure: I am not a tax professional, please run these tips by your tax pro to see if they apply to your specific tax situation. This article does not constitute professional or financial advice.


In our example, John Doe is a part-time student, who plans to take 2.5 years to complete his MBA program, intentionally spread over 3 tax years to maximize tax savings. I’ll walk through how these tax strategies can be used to knock $26,220 off the cost of graduate education, specifically an MBA. Feel free to share the info with others and discuss it with your tax pro. Hope this information is helpful to you!

1. 529 State Income Tax Credit In many states, you can get a state tax break just for putting money into a 529. Many people think to use a 529 for their kids, but do not think to fund it for themselves as adult students. This is a missed opportunity. Money in a 529 can have significant tax benefits. Furthermore, the money doesn’t need to be invested in the market, since it may be needed immediately to help pay tuition. It can simply be held in cash allocation within the 529 account. Furthermore, while the gains may only be used to fund education related expenses, the contributions themselves can be taken out any time. If you must withdraw money for an emergency, a 10% penalty applies to the gains only. In our example, John and his wife Jane live in Illinois. Contributions to an Illinois 529 plan of up $20,000 per year by a married couple filing jointly, are deductible in computing Illinois taxable income. Contribution deadline is December 31 postmark. In our example, John and his wife put $20,00 into a 529 for John, the Doe family will get almost $1000 back on their tax return as a state tax break. Furthermore, the following year, John can put another $20k into this account and get the tax benefit again, and he can do this every year.

Use this online calculator from Vanguard to determine your state tax savings.

2. Employer-Based Tuition Reimbursement. Many corporations offer $5,250 annually for tuition-related expenses. So many companies do this because it’s actually an income tax write-off for them. The $5,250 break is available at many organizations or can be requested through HR, even if it’s never been offered before at your organization. Some companies offer it for part-time employees, and even for degrees not directly related to the work performed. In our example, even if John’s current employer doesn’t offer tuition support, after John has completed a semester in the MBA program and gets a good sense of the time demands, John could take a part-time job (typically only 15-20 hours a week is needed to qualify) with any company that offers a tuition benefit. John could work a part-time, low stress job at Home Depot, Starbucks, UPS, Target or any number of companies to qualify for additional tuition benefits. Target has a special directive for MBA students, and anyone working for Target, will get 5,250 towards an MBA. Amazon is the most generous, with $12,000 annually for tuition. However, perhaps there isn’t synergy with Amazon and John’s role, so Amazon wouldn’t be a good fit for him (it may be for you), but there are literally so many companies that offer the $5,250 tuition benefit. Try this one or this one for starters.

3.  Lifetime Learning Credit. You might be already familiar with this one but I’m going to list it here for completeness’ sake and because the benefits and the income limits were recently expanded. As of December 2020, as long as your income is under $160,001 combined for a married couple (or $80,001 for unmarried individuals), you can get a $2,500 tax credit per student each year for any higher education. It can be used for an unlimited number of years in your lifetime, in any year you pay for higher education expenses, thus the name Lifetime Learning Credit.  Between 160k and 180k household income, the credit is phased out, and over 180k you’re not eligible. The Lifetime Learning Credit is an “above the line” credit, and so it can be claimed regardless of whether you itemize or take the standard deduction.

If you are from a higher earning family, you may still be eligible to for the Lifetime Learning Credits, by making use of tax-deferred retirements accounts. In our example, John and Jane had a family income of $190,000 and were over the income limit last year, but didn’t want to miss out, so they intentionally reduced their taxable household income by maxing out two Traditional IRAs ($6,000 each) and a Traditional 401k ($19,500), and they were able to qualify for this credit, saving them $2,500 per student each year. The Doe family can roll their IRA and 401k into a Roth IRA after John is out of school, utilizing a Laddered Roth IRA conversion strategy, depending on their tax situation at the time.  For more information, check out the IRS website on this.

So overall, by opening a 529 account, meeting with HR to discuss the $5250 tuition reimbursement, and claiming the Lifetime Learning credit to your tax filing, you could save over $26,000 on the cost of your MBA over 3 years. I've summarized each of these benefits in the table above for reference. Each of these strategies takes very little time to execute, so it's worth it to investigate these options. Again, be sure to check with your tax professional to see if these strategies are applicable to your situation.

Congratulations again and good luck to everyone starting an MBA program this year!

Dr. Roz Saluja, M.D. is a newly admitted student in the Northwestern Kellogg Evening & Weekend MBA program.

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