How to Apply for a Pell Grant

Pell Grants can help cover college expenses if you qualify

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For college students considering financial aid options, the best place to start is with gift aid, or aid that doesn’t have to be repaid—typically, scholarships and grants. One common source of gift aid is the Federal Pell Grant Program. 

Here’s what you need to know about Pell Grants, including if you qualify, how to apply, and how to maintain eligibility.

What Is a Pell Grant? 

A Pell Grant is gift aid paid out by the federal government through the Federal Pell Grant Program. This program helps millions of students afford higher education each year. In 2019, almost 8.2 million students received Pell Grant funds. In 2020, the number was 6.7 million students.

Unlike student loans, Pell Grant funds don’t need to be repaid. For the 2020–21 school year, eligible students can receive up to $6,345 in Pell Grant funds. These grants are also need-based aid, which means that college students must demonstrate “exceptional financial need” to qualify. 

If eligible, you can receive a Pell Grant each academic year for up to six years (12 total school terms, or the equivalent).

Qualifying for a Pell Grant

Pell Grants are a great help to college students, but students must meet certain eligibility requirements to receive them. 

First, Pell Grants are awarded only to undergraduate students and students in certain postbaccalaureate teaching certification programs. Graduate students are ineligible for Pell Grants. You’ll also need to meet other general requirements for federal student aid, including making satisfactory academic progress, according to the school you attend.

Second, you must submit a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to access federal student aid, including Pell Grants. The government uses information from the FAFSA to determine if students meet its definition of “financial need” to qualify for Pell Grant funds.

The calculation of financial need is based on a combination of your income and savings, your cost of attendance, and your enrollment status.

How to Apply 

Visit FAFSA.ed.gov to create an FSA ID account (if you don’t already have one) and complete the FAFSA application online. If you prefer to mail in the application, you can print the application from the FAFSA site or request a copy from your guidance counselor or financial aid officer. If you are under the age of 24 and considered a dependent on the FAFSA, your parents need to complete a portion of the application providing their financial information.

You must file a FAFSA renewal each year to recertify your eligibility for student aid, including Pell Grants. FAFSA submissions open on October 1 for the following school year. Each college and state has its own deadline for FAFSA submissions, which is typically months before the fall semester of the academic year you’re applying for aid. The federal deadline for FAFSA submissions is June 30 after the school year for which you need aid.

File the FAFSA as soon as possible since some aid is available on a first-come-first-served basis and may be depleted.

After your application is submitted and processed, you and any colleges you listed on the FAFSA will receive a Student Aid Report (SAR) with your expected family contribution (EFC).

Using Pell Grant Funds

Your college uses your FAFSA information to put together a student aid award letter or package, which outlines the aid types and amounts awarded to you. If you qualify for a Pell Grant, it should be included. The final step is to follow your school’s instructions for accepting aid.

Pell Grant funds are sent directly to your college—most schools divide this grant into two disbursements (usually once per semester). Your college will apply your Pell Grant funds first toward outstanding tuition or fees that you owe. The remaining funds are then paid directly to you.

Pell Grant Limitations

If you receive Pell Grants, use them wisely, and be sure to maintain eligibility for future aid. One requirement for financial aid is satisfactory academic progress, which is determined by your school. If your progress isn’t considered satisfactory (if you fail too many classes, for example), you could lose financial aid funds, including a Pell Grant you’d otherwise be eligible for. 

Since you can only receive up to 12 semesters or six years of Pell Grant awards, keeping your studies on track will ensure you finish your degree before becoming ineligible for further Pell Grants.

If you drop out during a semester for which you were given a Pell Grant or if you switch from full-time to part-time enrollment, you might be required to pay back a portion or all of the money that you received.

Other Funding Options 

There are other options to help you pay for school if grants won’t cover the full cost or if you don't qualify for a Pell Grant.

  • Apply for federal work-study programs
  • Check for state student aid or student loan programs
  • Look for scholarships offered through your college and private scholarships
  • Get a part-time job to help cover some of your expenses
  • Consider supplementing gift aid with student loans

Paying for college can look like putting together a patchwork of funds from many sources. Using gift aid like Pell Grants and scholarships first can help you avoid taking on student debt that could be a financial burden in the future. It can take effort to search and apply for funds, but it’s worth it.