After nine years, a federal report says that college tuition tax credits aren't necessarily providing the boon originally intended for poorer families.

The report, from the Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics, examined two programs enacted in 1997 -- the Hope Scholarship, which allows a tax credit of up to $1,500 during a student's first two years in college, and the Lifetime Learning Tax Credit, which allows a tax credit of up to $2,000 for lower- and middle-income students after the first two years.

The federal credits are saving an average of $700 in taxes for families earning $92,000 or more, and $600 for families earning less than $32,000, the study said. In both cases, the credit is based on need, so that families with higher incomes get less than the maximum benefit. Yet the credit are meaningless for the lowest-income families, since general tax breaks leave them owing nothing to the government.

Based on 2003-04 figures, the report found that low-income families are probably better off turning to federal college assistance programs to help with the hefty school tabs. Including tax breaks and federal grants, families earning less than $32,000 get an average benefit of $3,300, while those earning more than $92,000 get $800. Families earning between $32,000 and $59,999 claimed an average credit of $900, while those earning from $60,000 to $91,999 claimed an average of $1,100.

Both the Hope and Lifetime credits are phased out starting when family income reaches $43,000 a year, or $87,000 for married couples filing jointly. It's eliminated completely at $53,000 or more, or $107,000 for married couples who file jointly.

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