Are scholarships taxable income? 4 times when they are

Young Hispanic college student wonders "Are scholarships taxable income?" Young Hispanic college student wonders "Are scholarships taxable income?" Image:

In a Nutshell

A scholarship isn’t just a source of funding for college — it’s also a point of pride. So it can be disheartening to learn that your achievement may actually be taxable. Here’s the 411 on when and how scholarships may be taxed.

Editorial Note: Credit Karma receives compensation from third-party advertisers, but that doesn’t affect our editors' opinions. Our marketing partners don’t review, approve or endorse our editorial content. It’s accurate to the best of our knowledge when it’s posted.
Advertiser Disclosure

We think it's important for you to understand how we make money. It's pretty simple, actually. The offers for financial products you see on our platform come from companies who pay us. The money we make helps us give you access to free credit scores and reports and helps us create our other great tools and educational materials.

Compensation may factor into how and where products appear on our platform (and in what order). But since we generally make money when you find an offer you like and get, we try to show you offers we think are a good match for you. That's why we provide features like your Approval Odds and savings estimates.

Of course, the offers on our platform don't represent all financial products out there, but our goal is to show you as many great options as we can.

Scoring a scholarship is great news — for your wallet and your self-esteem.

Getting a scholarship can help you reduce the amount you may have to borrow to pay for college, or even avoid student loans altogether. Plus you can be proud of any academic or athletic accomplishments that led to the scholarship.

But if the money is taxable, you could end up stuck with a large tax bill to boot. Here’s what you need to know if you’re wondering, “Are scholarships taxable income?”


Typically tax-free

Generally, scholarship money is tax-free if it meets the following requirements:

  • You’re pursuing a degree at an eligible educational institution.
  • You use the scholarship or fellowship to pay qualified education expenses.
  • The scholarship funds aren’t more than you’ll need for qualified education expenses.
  • It’s not designated or earmarked for other purposes — for example, room and board — and doesn’t require that you use it for non-qualified education expenses only.
  • It’s not considered payment for teaching, research or other services.

It doesn’t matter who awarded you the scholarship, and you can even take advantage of the tax-free status if you’re attending school overseas.

 

4 times when scholarships could be taxed

If your scholarship doesn’t meet one or more of the above requirements, you could be on the hook to pay taxes on some or all the money you received.

Specifically, here are four times a scholarship is considered taxable income.

1. Your school isn’t eligible, or you’re not pursuing a degree

An eligible education institution meets the following requirements:

  • It offers higher education beyond high school.
  • It’s eligible to participate in a student aid program through the U.S. Department of Education.

Most accredited public, nonprofit and private for-profit universities are considered eligible education institutions. To make sure yours is on the list, check out the Federal Student Aid code list. It’s possible, however, that your school is eligible but isn’t on the list, so it may be a good idea to check with your school directly.

“The school should be able to confirm if it is an eligible educational institution for these purposes,” says Josh Hanover, an enrolled agent and senior manager at accounting firm Marks Paneth LLC.

Additionally, the IRS requires that you be a candidate for a degree. So if you’re just taking classes for fun or aren’t eligible for a degree for any other reason, any scholarship money you receive is taxable.

2. The funds exceed your qualified education expenses

According to the IRS, only tuition, fees, and other expenses that are required to enroll or attend school count as qualified education expenses.

The following don’t count as qualified expenses for tax-free scholarship purposes:

  • Rent
  • Groceries
  • Insurance
  • Medical expenses
  • Transportation
  • Other similar living expenses

That said, if only part of your scholarship funds exceeds your qualified education expenses, only a portion is taxable.

So if, for example, you receive a $10,000 scholarship but the cost of tuition, fees and other expenses at your chosen school only totals $9,000, the remaining $1,000 of your scholarship would be considered taxable income.

 

3. The funds are earmarked for nonqualified expenses

If you receive a scholarship specifically for nonqualified expenses, the amount earmarked for those purposes is considered taxable.

For example, if you’re a student athlete, you likely don’t have a lot of extra time to get a part-time job. As a result, your college may offer an athletic scholarship that includes funds earmarked for both tuition and room and board.

In this scenario, the funds designated specifically for room and board are considered taxable income if the scholarship requires you to use the money for that purpose.

4. The funds are considered payment for services

If you’re required to offer some kind of service as a condition to receive your scholarship, the money you receive is considered taxable.

For example, let’s say you receive a $2,000 scholarship for tuition, but you can get an extra $1,000 if you work part-time as a teaching assistant at the college or university. If you take the offer, $2,000 of the money you receive is tax-free, but you’ll receive a W-2 showing the extra $1,000 as taxable income.

The same also applies if you’re required to perform future services to get the scholarship. So double-check in advance to see if there are any such stipulations or caveats.

Part of any scholarship or fellowship you receive as a result of any of the following programs is considered an exception to this rule:

  • The National Health Service Corps Scholarship Program
  • The Armed Forces Health Professions Scholarship and Financial Assistance Program
  • A comprehensive student work-learning-service program (as defined in section 448(e) of the Higher Education Act of 1965) operated by a work college (as defined in that section).

Bottom line

As a college student, the last thing you want is to use all your scholarship money only to find out later that you should’ve set aside some of the funds to pay taxes. As a result, it’s critical to know whether scholarships are taxable income before you accept them so that you can properly plan and improve your chances of getting a tax refund.

Credit Karma Tax™ can help you report multiple sources of income, including any taxable portion of your scholarship. The online tax-filing service is always free and can help you do your federal and state income taxes.