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Pell Grant Limits: How Much Can You Get in Your Lifetime?

Federal Pell Grants are great resources for students who could use more help paying for school. Like all good things, though, there are some restrictions and rules around how you can use a Pell Grant. In this post, I'll explain:
  • Exactly how much you can get from your Pell Grant
  • Eligibility restrictions
  • Limits on how you can use Pell Grant money


Financial Limits: What's the Most You Can Get? 

As you may have expected, there is a maximum annual Pell Grant award amount ("What is the Pell Grant Amount? What is the Maximum Award?"). For the 2015-2016 academic year, the most you could receive if you're a full-time student is $5775. What you might not have expected is that there is also a minimum Pell Grant award amount: again for the 2015-2016 academic year, the least you could receive if you're awarded the grant is $600. 

In addition to annual maximum and minimum award amount, there's also a lifetime award maximum. Every year that you apply for the Pell Grant via the FAFSA (see "How to Submit a Pell Grant Application"), you'll be eligible for a particular amount of money. Your lifetime maximum is equal to 600% of your yearly eligibility, or about 6 years' worth of grant funding. 

Let's go over some examples to further explain what I mean:

Student A

  • Applies for the Pell Grant for her freshman year, and is eligible to receive $5,000 in funding.
  • She only attends school in the fall semester, though, so she only has to pay for half a year of school. As a result, she only gets $2,500, or 50%, of the annual grant money that she was eligible for.
  • Student A can apply for the Pell Grant the next year, and she still has 550% of her lifetime max (600%) available to her. 


Student B

  • Wasn't eligible for the Pell Grant his freshman, sophomore, or junior year.
  • His family's financial situation changes his senior year when he applies for the grant, and he is glad to find out he's eligible for $1,000 in funding. All of that money goes towards paying his tuition.
  • Student B used 100% of the annual grant money that he was eligible for, so he has 500% of his lifetime max (600%) available to him.
  • Student B graduates at the end of his senior year; even though he didn't meet his lifetime max, he's not eligible for the Pell Grant anymore because he received his bachelor's degree.

You might have noticed that this lifetime limit seems a little high. If you go to school for your bachelor's degree, it should only take you 4 years, or 400% of your lifetime max; unless there are special circumstances that prevent you from graduating within 4 years, you likely won't have to worry about this lifetime limit.



The more you know about financial aid, the more you can talk yourself out of feeling like this.


Eligibility Restrictions

Along with the financial limits above, there are also eligibility restrictions that can disqualify you from getting a Pell Grant.

I've broken this section up into two main parts: family financial eligibility, and student eligibility. 


What about family income limits for Pell Grant eligibility? 

So there are family financial limits for eligibility, but they're a bit more complicated than an arbitrary income cutoff. Eligibility limits for the Pell Grant are based on your family's Expected Family Contribution (EFC). Your EFC is generated when you submit your FAFSA ("How to Submit a Pell Grant Application"). If you want to estimate your EFC before you go through all the trouble of submitting your FAFSA, you can get more information here ("What is the Pell Grant Amount? What is the Maximum Award?"). 

If your EFC is at or below $5081 for the 2015-2016 academic year, you will be within the family income limits for the Pell Grant. If you meet all the other eligibility requirements, you will receive some grant money (so, between $600-$5775). 

By using your EFC, you can estimate about how much Pell Grant money you may be eligible for ("Pell Grant Calculator").


Are there restrictions on what type of student can get the Pell Grant?

The short answer is: yes. You can read more about eligibility criteria for the Pell Grant here ("Pell Grant Eligibility and Requirements: Do You Qualify?").

In a nutshell, the Pell Grant is meant primarily for low-income students who have a high school diploma or GED, but don't have a post-secondary degree (so, a bachelor's or vocational degree). If you don't demonstrate enough financial need, or if you already have a post-secondary degree, you likely won't qualify.

There is no age limit to receive the Pell Grant. It's open to people who need help funding their education at any age.


Limits to using your Pell Grant money

There are two logistical parameters you should be aware of if you would like to apply for a Pell Grant: there are restrictions on where and how you can spend your Pell Grant money.


Where You Spend Your Pell Grant

When you apply to colleges or to vocational programs, make sure they participate in the Pell Grant program. The good news is that most legitimate colleges participate; if you want to confirm, simply call the financial aid office. 


How to Spend Your Pell Grant

In many cases, the grant money won't even be paid directly to you; it will go straight to your school. Your school will then apply the grant money to charges on your account (e.g. tuition, room, and board charges). There may be differences in how schools process federal financial aid, though, so you can contact your financial aid office if you have further questions. 

In some circumstances, there may be leftover grant money after your school pays itself. If there is leftover money, it will be passed on to you in the form of a refund. 

There are restrictions on how you can use this refund money. It's meant to cover school-related expenses, including:

  • Books
  • Lab supplies
  • Transportation expenses (including gas or a bus pass, but NOT including a car)
  • Even food!

These usage restrictions are pretty serious because the Pell Grant is a federally funded program. Even though it may be tempting to use refund money for, shall we say, more fun activities, be careful about using it for legitimate expenses.



Perfectly sharpened colored pencils definitely count as legitimate school supplies.


One Final Note About Pell Grant Limits ...

If you're awarded the Pell Grant, it's super important that you stay on top of maintaining your academic performance in college. If your academic performance is deemed "unsatisfactory" (e.g. if you are failing out of your classes), you may lose eligibility for any type of federal aid, including the Pell Grant.

If you're concerned that your grades are slipping and you may lose eligibility, the best thing to do is to set up a meeting with a school administrator, like your dean.


What's next?

The Pell Grant isn't the only source of financial aid for aspiring college grads. If you get awesome SAT scores, you could also get awesome scholarship money

Too late to bring up your SAT scores? No problem! By doing well in school, you could help yourself pay your way through. It's a win-win


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Francesca Fulciniti
About the Author

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.

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