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What is the Federal Pell Grant?

Need-based funding for low-income students.

Updated

The federal government offers Pell Grants to undergraduate students who demonstrate exceptional financial need. While the average award might not be enough to cover your full cost of attendance, simply being eligible for this grant can open you up to other need-based financial aid opportunities.

What is the Federal Pell Grant?

The Federal Pell Grant is a need-based grant offered by the Department of Education (DoE). It’s generally only available to undergraduate students from low-income families, though you might be able to qualify if you’re enrolled in a teacher certification program.

Unlike federal loans, you don’t have to repay the money you receive under most circumstances. Many grant programs offered through your university and private organizations require you to be eligible for the Pell Grant in order to qualify.

How much is the award?

Pell Grant awards range from $623 to $6,195 for the 2019-2020 academic year. However, the government changes the maximum award each year. And even if you qualify, you might not receive the full amount. How much you qualify for depends on several factors:

  • Your expected family contribution (EFC)
  • Your school’s cost of attendance (COA)
  • If you’re enrolled full time or part time
  • Whether you plan on attending for a full academic year

Students enrolled full time with the lowest EFC and highest COA receive the largest awards.

Year-round Pell Grants

In some cases, you might be eligible to receive up to 150% of your Pell Grant award for the year to cover summer courses. This is called a year-round Pell Grant. Just keep in mind that getting this year-round award can limit how many years you remain eligible for the program.

What’s the lifetime limit for the Pell Grant?

Is it possible to qualify for additional funds?

Yes, children of service members who died while serving in Iraq or Afghanistan might be eligible for a higher award. You also might be eligible for additional funds if your parent was a public safety officer who died in the line of duty. You must have been under 24 and enrolled in college or career school at least part time at the time of their death to qualify.

If you meet this criteria and were already eligible for the Pell Grant, the DoE recalculates your award with an EFC of $0. If you weren’t eligible, then you might want to consider applying for the Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grant instead.

Am I eligible for the Pell Grant?

You must meet the following requirements to be eligible for the Federal Pell Grant:

  • Undergraduate student or enrolled in a post-baccalaureate teacher certification program
  • Meet basic qualifications for federal student aid
  • Meet COA and EFC requirements for your enrollment level

The table below shows the minimum COA and maximum EFC requirements for the 2019-2020 academic year. If your COA falls below the minimum or your EFC surpasses the maximum for your enrollment level, you don’t qualify for the Pell Grant.

Enrollment levelMinimum COAMaximum EFC
Full-time$600$5,576
Three-quarter-time$800$5,400
Half-time$1,200$5,000
Less-than-full-time$2,500$3,700

Keep in mind that even if your COA meets the minimum required for your enrollment level, you still might not qualify depending on how much your family is expected to contribute. You can see potential Pell Grant awards broken down by COA and EFC on the Federal Student Aid website.

How to apply for the Pell Grant

You can apply for the Pell Grant along with other federal student aid by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) on StudentLoans.gov. Typically, this takes between 20 to 50 minutes depending on whether your parents need to complete the application with you.

Once you submit your FAFSA, wait to receive your financial aid award letter from your school. It should list your Pell Grant award along with other federal and school-funded aid you qualify for — if any.

How to complete the FAFSA in 10 steps

How to get an estimate of your award

You can find out how much you might receive through the Federal Pell Grant Program by using the Department of Education’s FAFSA4caster tool. After answering questions about yourself, your parents and the schools you’re thinking of attending, you’ll find out if you’re eligible for the Pell Grant and get an estimate of your award along with other federal student aid you might qualify for.

While you aren’t guaranteed to get the exact amount the FAFSA4caster estimates, it can give you an idea of whether you can expect to receive the Pell Grant and how much outside aid you need to apply for. Qualifying for the Pell Grant might also make you eligible for other need-based aid.

How to use the FAFSA4caster

How do I receive the funds?

The DoE typically sends all of your federal aid directly to your school, including the Pell Grant. Your school uses your federal aid to cover tuition, fees and room and board. If there’s any money left over, you’ll receive a check for the remaining funds.

However, in some cases you might be able to receive some or all of your Pell Grant directly. Contact your school’s financial aid office for more details.

How often can I receive the Federal Pell Grant?

Students are eligible for up to 12 semesters of 100% Pell Grant funding — that’s six academic years — while you’re enrolled in an undergraduate degree program or post-baccalaureate teacher certification program. If you receive more than 100% funding for some academic years, you won’t qualify for the full six years.

In order to receive multiple years of Pell Grant funding, you must continue to meet the eligibility requirements and renew the FAFSA each year.

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Bottom line

Pell Grants are the most popular type of gift aid that the DoE offers to undergraduate students. How much you receive depends on your school’s cost of attendance and your family’s finances.

While you might not receive more than a few hundred dollars through this program — if you qualify at all — it can open you up to other grant opportunities.

You can learn more about how paying for school works by checking out our guide to student loans.

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