Pell Grant Eligibility and Requirements: What Parents Need to Know

When it comes to financing a college degree, students have multiple options. Part-time jobs, student loans, scholarships, and grants will likely all play a part in planning for college. While students eventually have to pay loan money back to the lender, scholarships and grants are a free form of educational funding and don’t require reimbursement. One of four available need-based grants, Federal Pell Grants allow students from lower income levels to pursue their degrees for up to six academic years.

Financing Your Education with a Pell Grant

Pell Grants, along with Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG) and work-study grants, are part of the larger federal scheme for financial aid in college. These grants are similar in that they are designed to support students who demonstrate significant financial need. The Pell Grant is the simplest form of federal aid and is awarded directly to the student in question. This is unlike the FSEOG awards, which are large federal grants given to a specific university before being further parceled out by local administration. That being said, most students who qualify for a Pell Grant will also qualify for an FSEOG award.

Determining Whether Your Child Is Eligible for a Pell Grant

Not everyone is eligible for a Federal Pell Grant to finance their college education. To qualify for this award, individuals must be undergraduate or vocational students who have been accepted at participating institutions. Generally, students with bachelor’s or professional degrees are ineligible for Pell Grants. However, those in certain teacher certification programs may qualify for this form of funding.

Eligibility for Pell Grants depends on a student’s Expected Family Contribution (EFC)–that is, the amount of money their family will be able to put towards their educational expenses in a given year. While assets and other extenuating circumstances are taken into account, most Pell Grants are given to students with combined family incomes of $30,000 or below. Rarely, these grants are extended to students with combined family incomes of up to$60,000. The best way to forecast a student’s eligibility, however, will always be the EFC. As a general rule, students with an EFC equal to or less than $5,140 will qualify for a Pell Grant. Any student looking to gain a Pell Grant should work towards calculating their EFC. The only exception to this rule is students who have a combined family income of less than$26,000. These students are determined to have an automatic zero EFC.

Eligible students must also meet the following criteria to be awarded a Pell Grant:

• Be a U.S. citizen or eligible noncitizen with a valid Social Security number
• Register for the Selective Service (male students only)
• Enroll or be accepted for enrollment in school
• Showcase financial need (the difference between a school’s cost of attendance and estimated family contribution)
• Fill out the FAFSA certification statement
• Hold a high school diploma or equivalent
• Maintain a particular GPA at college
• Maintain full time enrollment

Note that certain individuals are not eligible to receive Federal Pell Grants. These include people who are currently in prison, or subject to an involuntary civil commitment following incarceration for a sexual offense.

What Students and Parents Need to Know About Pell Grants

The Award Itself

If you’re considering applying for a Pell Grant, it’s important to know that award amounts can change on an annual basis. For the 2018-2019 school year, the maximum grant was $6,095. However, the award for the 2019-2020 period was$6,195. Students can use these funds to pay for certain college expenses, including tuition, room and board, books, fees, and transportation to and from school.

Pell Grants are also widely variable depending on a student’s EFC.  Families should be aware that not all students qualify for the maximum payment. Pell Grant awards depend on an array of factors, including expected family contribution, tuition costs at your chosen school, and whether a student plans to attend school full or part time. In 2019, the average Pell Grant recipient was awarded \$4,200, approximately 67% of the full award.

Reading the Fine Print: Maintaining Eligibility

Like almost any award or scholarship, Pell Grants come with certain guidelines that determine a student’s ongoing eligibility for the award. Excepting certain legal regulations, these guidelines are positively oriented; they require that a student do or meet specific benchmarks for performance. While it is common sense that failure to match these expectations will result in a loss of eligibility, it should be noted that any discrepancy could result in the repayment of some or all of the received award.

So, what does this mean? As a rule of thumb, families should be careful to plan and predict any pitfalls that might affect their student’s performance. Luckily, there are ways to ensure compliance with Pell Grant standards. For example, if a student has any long term health complications, it would be better to plan a segmented course of study rather than a moderated one; students can maintain eligibility for up to 6 years even if those years are non-consecutive. However, students who suddenly opt for part-time study may run into problems with their eligibility.

Where Do We Begin?

The first step to potentially receiving a Pell Grant is filling out the FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The FAFSA will determine your Pell Grant and other financial aid eligibility. Be sure to fill out a new FAFSA form every year that you remain in school so you can continue to receive aid. It is important to note, however, that Pell Grants are not affected by the timing of your FAFSA submission.

And what if your child is looking to begin again? Don’t worry, they haven’t dropped out, we’re talking about graduate school. While the Pell Grant is designed to fund undergraduate educations, previous eligibility for a Pell Grant is often a pre-requisite for need-based aid in graduate school. Taking advantage of the opportunity for a Pell Grant can help to set your student on a path that consistently matches their financial need. But that’s a ways away.