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What’s a Federal Pell Grant? Here’s What You Need to Know

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Looking for help in paying for college? You’re not alone, especially with college costs rising every year. Fortunately, several governmental programs are available to assist students whose financial need could make paying for college difficult. The Pell Grant program is a particularly popular option that helps millions of students each year.


Wondering how a Pell Grant might fit into your financial aid plans for college? Read on to find out what a Pell Grant entails, who is eligible, and how you can apply.


What is a Federal Pell Grant?


The Pell Grant program is run by the federal government of the United States through the Department of Education. The program awards monetary grants to help pay for college for students in the U.S. who have high levels of demonstrated financial need.


Pell Grants are awarded entirely based on need; grades, test scores, and other merit considerations are not part of the selection process. The amounts awarded vary based on a student’s individual circumstances and are subject to certain yearly and lifetime limits.


Unlike federal student loans, Pell Grants generally don’t need to be paid back in the future. There are a few exception to this rule; if your eligibility changes or you leave school early during the period of your grant, you may have to pay some or all of it back. Fortunately, most students won’t have to worry about these special circumstances.


According to the U.S. Department of Education, the maximum Pell Grant available for the 2018-2019 school year is $6,095; this is usually split up by semester. Your own eligibility will vary based on your personal and family circumstances, including the cost of attendance for the college you’ve chosen. However, the amount of your Pell Grant won’t change based on aid you receive from sources other than the federal government.


If you continue to be eligible, you may receive Pell Grants for up to twelve semesters (or their equivalent, if your college runs on a different calendar). You may also have opportunities to receive Pell Grants to help cover summer coursework. Your college’s financial aid office can help you to work out the details as you navigate your college career.


Given today’s tuition prices, a Pell Grant won’t cover the entire cost of your college education. However, it can put a substantial dent in your financial need and, in combination with other financial aid sources, can help make your college of choice a financially feasible option.

Who Receives Pell Grants?


Each year, approximately 5.4 million students receive Pell Grants. In order to be eligible for a Pell Grant, you’ll need to meet these initial conditions:


  • You must be a U.S. citizen or eligible noncitizen. (This often means having official Permanent Resident status.)
  • You must be an undergraduate student who has not previously received a bachelor’s degree, unless you’re in one of a handful of specific Pell-approved post-baccalaureate programs.
  • You must be attending a recognized post-secondary educational institution in the United States, full-time or part-time.


Beyond these criteria, recipients of Pell Grants are decided based upon financial need, which is affected by the cost of attendance at your institution and whether you’re a full-time or part-time student. Once you receive a Pell Grant, you’re required to maintain satisfactory academic progress in college during the period for which you received the grant.


Financial need, for the purposes of the Pell Grant program and other federal programs, is determined by the information you provide about your family’s finances in the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The federal government uses your FAFSA information to determine your Expected Family Contribution (EFC), which shows how much your family can afford to contribute financially each year. The difference between your annual cost of attendance and your EFC is your financial need.


Since Pell Grants are intended to assist students with the most financial need, not all students with any level of financial need will qualify for a Pell Grant. You can find a detailed official chart of grant amounts by EFC and cost of attendance here, but the gist of these numbers is that Pell Grants are generally limited to low- and middle-income students.


How Do I Apply for a Pell Grant?


There is no specific application process for the Pell Grant. All you have to do is fill out and submit your FAFSA by the appropriate deadline. The federal government will use the information about your family’s finances that appears in your FAFSA to determine whether you’ll receive a Pell Grant.


For guidance on filling out the FAFSA, check out our post The Ultimate Guide to Filling Out the FAFSA. The Financial Aid section of the CollegeVine blog provides additional tips for managing your financial aid application process.


Filling out the FAFSA is something that you should be doing regardless of whether you expect to receive a Pell Grant; it opens the door to many sources of aid in paying for college, including both governmental and institutional funding. You should also fill out any other financial aid application paperwork required by your college.


If you end up qualifying for a Pell Grant, your college’s financial aid office will integrate that amount into your overall financial aid award. Your Pell Grant may be paid directly to your college, directly to you, or split between these two methods. It must be used to cover educational expenses, but these expenses can include books, supplies, and other necessary costs in addition to tuition.


You may be able to receive Pell Grants in your subsequent years of college, but you’ll have to reapply each year by completing the FAFSA again. Your eligibility may change from year to year based on changes in your family’s financial situation, your cost of attendance, and any changes that might occur in government policies regarding Pell Grant allocation.


As we’ve mentioned, a Pell Grant likely won’t cover all your college costs, so if you’re worried about your financial need impacting your college decisions, it’s important to research and seek out other sources of financial aid, from institutional aid to student loans to outside scholarships. Only you and your family can decide on the best plan for financing your college education.


For more information about Pell Grants and other forms of financial aid offered by the U.S. government, visit the Federal Student Aid homepage operated by the Department of Education. To find out more about your personal financial aid situation at your chosen college, don’t hesitate to call your college’s financial aid office and speak to a financial aid officer; they’re the people who are best equipped to help once you’ve been accepted at a particular school.


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Monikah Schuschu
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Monikah Schuschu is an alumna of Brown University and Harvard University. As a graduate student, she took a job at the Harvard College Office of Financial Aid and Admissions, and discovered the satisfaction of helping students and parents with the often-baffling college admissions process. She also enjoys fiber art, murder mysteries, and amateur entomology.