Pell Grants are awarded by the federal US government to help students pay for college or vocational school. Figuring out whether you're eligible can be confusing, but this post will guide you through all the eligibility requirements you should know about if you want to apply for a federal Pell Grant.
If you need a basic intro to what the Pell Grant is, check out our overview guide.
Students are automatically considered for the Pell Grant when they submit their Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. You can learn more about submission here. In this post, we'll cover the following:
- How to figure out whether you're eligible for federal student aid
- What the Pell Grant income limits are
- How to figure out whether you're eligible for the Pell Grant specifically
- Pell Grant award maximums
- What you can do to increase your chances of getting the Pell Grant
What Are the Federal Student Aid Requirements?
Because the Pell Grant is a federal aid program, you need to meet basic eligibility for federal student aid in order to be considered for the Pell. There are a lot of complicated-seeming requirements, so we put together two lists that describe everything you need before applying for aid.
You need to check off every item on List #1 and one item on List #2.
In order to be eligible for all federal aid, including the Pell Grant, you must meet all the following eligibility criteria:
Do you meet this criterion?
Have a high school diploma, GED, or approved homeschool education
Be enrolled or accepted to enroll in an eligible degree/certificate program
Be registered with Selective Service, if you are male and 18-25 years old
Have a valid Social Security Number (unless you’re from the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, or Republic of Palau)
Sign statements on the FAFSA stating that (1) you’re not in default and do not owe refund money on a federal student loan, and (2) you’ll only use federal aid money to help pay for your education
Maintain "satisfactory" progress in school
In addition to the items listed above, you must be able to check ONE of the following:
- Be a US citizen or US national
- Have a green card
- Have an Arrival-Departure Record (I-94)
- Have battered immigrant status
- Have a T-Visa
These are all the requirements necessary to apply for federal financial aid. If you didn't have any issues with the items listed above, you're on the right track!
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Making sure you meet these requirements is a hassle, but it's worth it for free money, right?
What Are the Pell Grant Requirements?
There are a few eligibility requirements specific to the Pell Grant that you need to meet on top of the federal requirements we just discussed.
Let's start by answering an important question: what are the Pell Grant income limits? The Pell Grant is meant primarily for low-income students who have not already received a post-secondary degree. There are some exceptions to this, but they're rare. For the purpose of this post, I'll be focusing on future and current college students.
In a nutshell, to be considered eligible for the Pell Grant, you:
- Must demonstrate enough financial need (we'll get to the details of this shortly)
- Cannot already have a bachelor's or professional degree
Easy enough, right? In the next section, I'll explain exactly what I mean when I say you need to demonstrate "enough financial need."
What Are the Financial Need Requirements?
This seems like a simple question, but the answer is actually somewhat complicated. Before I can answer this question, I need to briefly explain what financial information is considered important, and why.
The Department of Education—the government department in charge of federal financial aid—takes a lot of factors into consideration when determining whether to award the Pell Grant. Put simply, the greater your family's financial need is, the greater the likelihood that you'll be awarded the grant.
There's more to determining financial need than just looking at how much your parents make, however; your family's expenses are also taken into account. Lower income + more expenses = greater need.
Allow me to break down what counts as income and what counts as an expense:
- Your own personal income (if any)
- Your parents' income
- Assets belonging to you or your parents (e.g., savings or things they could own, such as a house)
- Number of people living in your household (more people = more expense)
- Number of family members (not including parents) who are attending college
- Your school's Cost of Attendance, or CoA—that is, how much you have to pay in tuition, room, board, and other expenses for one year
Now that we've gotten through that information, I can better explain how your family's unique financial situation is analyzed when you're considered for a Pell Grant.
All the above factors—income and expenses—are used to calculate yet another number called an Expected Family Contribution (EFC). If your EFC is at or below $5,140 for the 2019-20 academic year, you will be eligible to receive the Pell Grant.
Each family's financial situation is different, and there's no one income cutoff that makes a student eligible or ineligible to receive the Pell. With that being said, here are some important facts to note:
- Most Pell Grants are awarded to students whose families make less than $30,000 annually
- Some Pell Grants are awarded to students whose families make $30,000-$60,000 annually
- It's possible but rare for students to be awarded the grant if their families make more than $60,000 annually
What Are the Requirements After You Get Your Pell Grant? Do You Ever Need to Repay Pell Grants?
After you have met the requirements for both FAFSA and the Pell Grant, and have been awarded your Pell Grant, it's pretty easy to remain eligible for the grant. All you need to do is stay in school.
However, if you drop out of school while you're receiving a Pell Grant or change from full-time student status to part-time student status, you might be required to repay all or part of your Pell Grant for that year or semester.
If your school determines that you need to repay your Pell Grant, they'll send you a notice informing you of how much you owe and when you'll need to pay it by. You'll typically have 45 days to either pay the amount in full or set up a payment plan.
You might have to focus a little more than you'd like on the family finances.
How Much Money Can You Get From a Pell Grant?
For 2019-2020, the maximum Pell Grant award is $6,195. Factors such as the amount of your Expected Family Contribution and enrollment status (full-time vs part-time) will affect how much money you can get.
You can learn more about calculating your EFC with our Pell Grant Calculator guide.
What If You Don't Qualify for a Pell Grant?
If you're above the Pell Grant income limits, there's not much you can do to change your family's financial situation, which is the main criterion used when you apply for a Pell Grant.
There are certain factors under your control that might affect your eligibility. Here are some potential eligibility issues and solutions:
- If you don't have a high school diploma but would like to attend college, you can get a GED to meet federal financial aid requirements.
- Make sure you apply to and enroll in colleges or vocational programs that participate in the Pell Grant program. If you're unsure whether a school is involved in the program, you can check with that school's financial aid office.
- If you're not eligible for financial aid because you're in default on a federal student loan, focus on paying back that debt before applying for more federal aid.
Summary: How Pell Grant Eligibility Works
The Pell Grant is an annual award given out by the federal government to students who need help paying for college. If you apply for FAFSA, you'll be automatically considered for a Pell Grant.
To meet the Pell Grant requirements, you'll need to meet all the federal eligibility requirements for financial aid and prove that your expected family contribution is at or below $5,140 for the 2019-2020 school year.
Currently, the maximum Pell Grant award is $6,195. Once you receive a Pell Grant, you don't need to pay it back, unless you drop out of school or change from full-time to part-time student status, in which case you'll need to repay all or part of your Pell Grant.
If you're already looking at how to get a Pell Grant, you might already know about the program. If not, you can read about everything you need to know in our in-depth Pell Grant guide.
For more information on getting into your top-choice schools, check out our step-by-step guide.
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Francesca graduated magna cum laude from Harvard and scored in the 99th percentile on the SATs. She's worked with many students on SAT prep and college counseling, and loves helping students capitalize on their strengths.