How to Apply for a Pell Grant

This US government grant helps lower-income students attend college

A Pell Grant, funded by the U.S. government to help lower-income students attend college, does not need to be repaid since the government has contributed these funds for your education at no cost to you.

If you think you meet the eligibility requirements for a Pell Grant, you should apply since it certainly can help you pay for college without working. The Pell Grant does have specific eligibility guidelines you must follow, and your college must meet the standard qualifications set forth by the federal government for accreditation. Most universities and community colleges meet these requirements.

What Is a Pell Grant?

Young students registering for classes at college campus
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A Pell Grant consists of money from the U.S. government that will help cover your tuition and other costs associated with college. The Pell Grant works on an income-based system, which means it considers both your income and your parents' income levels.

You can be eligible for a Pell Grant for up to six years. You can receive one Pell Grant for each academic year. Generally, colleges will divide that money over the number of semesters or quarters that you attend school for the year. The college you attend will receive the money and use it to cover tuition.

Any remaining money will then be distributed to you after covering your tuition and fees. The process works in conjunction with your overall financial aid package and any federal student loans you receive.

How to Apply

To apply for a Pell Grant, you can use the Free Form for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). You can fill this out online or submit a paper copy.

Print out a copy at the website www.fafsa.ed.gov, or request a copy from your guidance counselor or financial aid officer. The applications for the following year must be received by June 30 each year. You must reapply each year to get the grant. If you are under the age of 24 you will need to provide information from your parents' tax return.

Qualifying for a Pell Grant

The government gives Pell Grants based on whether or not you meet the income eligibility guidelines. They determine this by looking at several factors, so it doesn't hurt to apply for the grant, even if you don't think you'll qualify.

You use the same application, the FAFSA, that you would use for student loans, but you do not need to accept the loans if they are offered to you. Your Pell Grant eligibility can be affected if you do not make progress towards your degree or if you drop out of a semester of school without a valid reason. If you fail too many classes your eligibility for future grants may be affected. 

Using the Proceeds

You'll have fairly easy to access the money from your Pell Grant. The government will send the money directly to your college, and they'll apply it towards any tuition or fees that you owe.

If you qualify for a scholarship that covers all of your tuition costs, you should be able to receive the entire amount of your Pell Grant in a check or directly deposited into your account.

Some schools do this on the first day of classes, while others may require you wait until after the drop day deadline has passed. Some colleges have switched to debit cards. The debit cards may have a per-fee transaction, and it would be best to do one transfer to your bank account at the beginning of the semester, and then budget your money out accordingly.

Pell Grant Rules

If you drop out during a semester you may be required to pay back a portion or all of the money that you received from the Pell Grant. You may also become ineligible for a Pell Grant for a period of time until you show that you are making adequate progress towards your degree.

Beginning in 2011, you can only qualify for one Pell Grant a year, with a total limit of twelve semesters or six years of Pell Grant awards. You can receive an award amount in 2017-2018 of $5,920 total, but you can divide that up over two semesters to cover the cost of your tuition.

Other Funding Options

Other funding options exist to help you pay for school, and you should consider them even if you don't qualify for a Pell Grant. Look for scholarships both through your college and private scholarship options.

Student loans present another option but use them as a last resort. If you do take out student loans, carefully budget your money and limit the amount you borrow as much as possible. Carefully monitor your spending in college. You can also work while you are in college. Depending on the job type, you might gain some valuable experience that can help you find a job later, and prevent you from graduating with thousands of dollars in debt.