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Federal Pell Grants

Students with high financial need may be eligible to receive Federal Pell Grants, the most popular federal grant given primarily to low-income undergraduate students. Pell Grants, as with all grants, do not have to be repaid, and eligibility is based on a number of criteria related to your level of unmet need in pursuing your college degree. Your eligibility can only be determined after you have completed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The Department of Education starts accepting the FAFSA on October 1st of each year, and completing the FAFSA online will speed up processing and give you more time to evaluate your funding options.

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What is a Federal Pell Grant?

Unlike student loans, Federal Pell Grants do not have to be repaid. Generally, Pell Grants are awarded only to undergraduate students who have not earned a bachelor’s or professional degree. (A professional degree is usually obtained after a bachelor’s degree in a field such as medicine, business or law.) In some cases, you might receive a Pell Grant for attending a post-baccalaureate teacher certificate program. Pell Grants are usually a foundation of financial aid, and often determine your eligibility for other federal grant programs like the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG) and the Academic Competitiveness Grant (ACG).

Pell Grants are usually a foundation of financial aid, to which aid from other federal and nonfederal sources might be added.

Who may be eligible for Pell Grants?

The Federal Pell Grant is usually awarded to undergraduates who have a high degree of unmet financial need. Students whose families have a total income of up to $50,000 may be eligible for the need-based funding, though most Pell grant money goes to students with a total family income below $20,000. Your eligibility will be determined by the FAFSA. The U.S. Department of Education uses a standard formula, established by Congress, to evaluate the information you report when you apply for the FAFSA. After you’ve completed the financial aid application, you’ll receive a confirmation e-mail letting you know your application has been processed and providing you a link to your Student Aid Report, or SAR. You’ll also be able to view your Expected Family Contribution (EFC), the number that determines your eligibility for federal grants, and how much you’re eligible for. From there, your information is also sent to the school or schools you indicated on your FAFSA.

How much money can I get?

The maximum Pell Grant award for the 2021-2022 award year is $6,495. The maximum can change yearly and depends on program funding. How much you get will depend not only on your EFC but also on your Cost of Attendance (COA), whether you’re a full-time or part-time student, and whether you attend school for a full academic year or less. You may receive only one Pell Grant in an award year, and you may not receive Pell Grant funds from more than one school at a time. Most students will receive less than the maximum, but being eligible for a Pell Grant opens the door to most other federal grant programs.

How will I be awarded the money?

Your school may credit the Pell Grant funds to your school account, pay you directly (usually by check), or combine these methods. The school must tell you in writing how and when you’ll be paid, and how much you’ll be receiving in grant funding. Schools must pay you at least once per term (semester, trimester, or quarter). Schools that do not use formally defined terms must pay the student at least twice per academic year.

Can I receive a Pell Grant if I'm enrolled less than half-time?

Yes, if you’re otherwise eligible. You won’t receive as much funding as if you were enrolled full-time, but your school must disburse your Pell Grant funds in accordance with your enrollment status and can’t refuse you an award simply because you’re enrolled less than half-time.

The financial aid office at times can seem to be speaking a foreign language. But do not despair: We have a page detailing common financial aid acronyms from FAFSA to SAR, as well as additional information on federal grant programs and other forms of student aid.

Hopefully this information will help you in the process of applying for federal student aid. Your college’s financial aid administrator and your high school’s college counselor have resources that can help you if you find yourself confused or overwhelmed by the aid application process. Above all, don’t give up on federal aid: Many students who qualify don’t bother to apply, which effectively means they’re passing up free money for college. And when you’re paying for school, every additional dollar of financial aid helps.

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Last Reviewed: July 2021