What is a Federal Pell Grant (FAFSA)?

Federal Pell Grant Guide - Application and Eligibility

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The cost of a university education is high, not only in dollars but also in how tuition fees are making a university degree unattainable for so many high school graduates. The US used to lead the world in college enrollment; within the past 10 years, we have fallen to the 13th spot in the world. In today’s world, a degree from an accredited college or university is even more of a necessity than ever before, but tuition at a public university now costs twice as much as it used to. Within 20 years (from 1992 to 2012), student loan obligations grew to more than twice their former cost.

However, students who are able to prove financial need have access to grants and scholarships to help offset these rising costs. Grants are essentially funds that don’t have to be repaid to the federal or state government. These are often called “gift aid.”

Learn How Grants Can Help You With College Tuition

How Much Money Can I Get with a Pell Grant?

While a federal grant makes paying for college significantly easier, there is one catch: student recipients are required to attend a college or university that has been accredited by an independent agency. The rationale behind this requirement is that the Department of Education will know that the education or work training you receive will meet high standards. If you attend an unaccredited college or university, you may not be eligible for federal financial aid.

The amount of aid you get each year changes. Currently, the maximum amount for a Pell Grant is $6,195 (2019-2020 academic year). Several factors can affect how much you will get annually. The Department of Education takes into account your cost of attendance, which is decided by your university/college and your degree program; your expected family contribution or EFC; whether you plan to stay in school for a full academic year; and whether you will be a part-time or full-time student.

If you are enrolled full-time in your fall and spring semesters, you may qualify for an additional $1,000 for the summer semester; 150% of your original grant award. Some people call this category the “year-round Pell” grant and it has only recently been made available. The amount of any other financial aid you receive won’t be affected by the amount of your Pell grant award.

If you are the child of a deceased member of the US armed forces who died in military service in Afghanistan or Iraq, you may qualify for more Pell grant funding. To qualify, you should be enrolled in community college or a university at least part-time and you should be younger than 24 years.

  • The share of undergraduate students receiving Pell Grants rose from 26% in 2008-09 to a peak of 38% in 2011-12. It then declined steadily to 31% in 2018-19.
  • The number of undergraduates declined by 2.9 million (12%) between 2011-12 and 2018-19. The number of Pell Grant recipients declined by 2.7 million (28%) over these seven years.
  • Total Pell Grant expenditures were 35% higher in 2018-19 than in 2008-09 ($28.2 billion vs. $21.0 billion in 2018 dollars). The number of Pell Grant recipients was 10% higher (6.8 million vs. 6.2 million) in 2018-19 than in 2008-09.
  • The maximum Pell Grant is the most frequently cited measure of per-student subsidies provided by the program. However, most students receive smaller grants because they are enrolled part time or because their family incomes and assets reduce their aid eligibility. In 2018-19, when the maximum Pell Grant was $6,095, the average grant was $4,160.
  • In 2019-20, the maximum Pell Grant covers 59% of average published tuition and fees and 28% of average tuition, fees, room, and board at public four-year colleges and universities.

Pell Grant Eligibility & Requirements

Even though the Pell grant is considered “gift” money, you have to meet certain conditions to qualify. You should be a high school graduate (matriculated) who has been accepted for study at an accredited college or university. You must not already hold a bachelor’s degree. In your college classes, you should be enrolled in at least one credit each semester and maintain a good standing academically. You’ll also need to be a permanent resident or an alien with a valid Social Security number and verify your noncitizen status and eligibility when you are asked.

You shouldn’t have any federal student loans in default at your current university or any other university. You aren’t allowed to owe any refunds on federal Pell grants, federal Perkins loans, or the FSEOG. You’ll have to register with the Selective Service if you are a male aged 18. You must have a high school diploma or a GED certificate and pass a Department of Education-approved test or meet any other state-established requirements which have been approved by the Department of Education.

You’ll have to prove financial need, which your FAFSA expected family contribution (EFC) will demonstrate, along with the cost of attendance, your proof of enrollment, and your plans to attend school for a full academic year or less.

You also cannot exceed the federal Pell lifetime eligibility limit, which is 12 full-time semesters or terms.

How to Apply for a Pell Grant?

To apply for the Pell Grant, you only need to fill out your FAFSA.

Before beginning to fill out your Federal Application for Free Student Aid (FAFSA), apply for your FSA ID. This is your PIN that allows you to sign your application. Go to https://www.fafsa.ed.gov to fill out your application. Fill out every section and question; failure to do so means your application isn’t complete and a decision on your request for financial aid of any kind will be delayed.

After you completely fill out your FAFSA and submit it, you’ll get a Student Aid Report (SAR), which will tell you what you may qualify for. Once you have submitted your FAFSA (which has to be resubmitted for each year you are in school), you will automatically be considered for a Pell grant, as long as you meet all eligibility requirements.

Make sure you submit your FAFSA before each deadline: the college deadline, which will vary from school to school; federal deadline, in which June 30 is the final day to submit; and your state’s deadline, which is vital if you are applying for state aid. Your expected family contribution (EFC) determines how much aid you are eligible to receive. It is not the amount they have to contribute.

How Will I Receive My Aid?

You won’t get the same Pell grant amount every year. This changes and is determined by the federal government. The amount of your Pell grant is affected by your EFC, your school and degree program’s cost of attendance, whether you are a part-time or full-time student, and even your plans to go to school for the fall and/or spring semester.

When Pell grants are disbursed, your school may apply your award to your school costs or it may pay the money directly to you, at which time you pay your tuition. Or, it may combine both of these methods. If you want to continue receiving the Pell grant each semester, you are expected to maintain continuous enrollment in an undergraduate course in a school in the US. You also need to fill out a new FAFSA application every year so that you stay eligible.

Is this Just for Freshmen?

No. Every undergraduate student who is able to prove financial need is eligible to receive a Pell grant award. Eligible students are limited to a lifetime eligibility limit of 12 semesters (six years) in which they can receive the Pell grant.

To determine your lifetime eligibility used (LEU), calculate one award year, then determine how many award years you have used. An award year runs from July 1 of one year to June 30 of the next year. As long as you submit a new FAFSA every academic year before the deadline, you will maintain your eligibility.

The Department of Education figures out how much of your lifetime maximum you have used. It uses the maximum six years. Next, it compares how much you have received for the current award year with your “scheduled award amount” for that award year. You may use the full 100% for that year or you may use less.

What Can I Use the Money For?

Because this is a federal education grant, it must be used to cover school-related expenses. As long as your classes are within an accredited degree program that culminates in an undergraduate degree, you qualify for a Pell grant.

Once your university or college has disbursed the money, it is used to pay for tuition and fees that are assessed, school books and supplies, your room and board, meals, and also for “miscellaneous” personal expenses. You should also be able to use some of your grant as an allowance for dependent care if you are a student caring for dependents. If there is money remaining once your tuition, fees, books and supplies have been paid, you will receive a check for the remainder.

Things to Note

  • Some Schools Don’t Participate in the Federal Aid Program
    Some schools choose not to participate in the federal student aid program. One example includes some faith-based colleges. These schools view government aid, which often requires schools to follow certain rules, as violating their religious beliefs. One example is following regulations such as banning discrimination based on sexual orientation.
  • A Pell Grant Will Likely Not Cover Your Entire College Tuition
    While gift aid is certainly welcome to students and families with a financial need, they should know that the grant won’t cover the entire cost of tuition. However, it will pay for a significant amount, leaving the remainder to be paid through work-study or student loans.
  • It is Possible You Will Have to Repay All Some or All of a Federal Grant
    While a federal Pell grant generally doesn’t require repayment, there are certain circumstances when this may happen:
    • Received outside grants, reducing your need for federal aid
    • Your enrollment status changed (went to school part-time, reducing your grant amount)
    • Early withdrawal from the degree program for which you received financial aid

How to Supplement the Pell Grant

Don’t rely only on your Pell grant. It will not cover all your school costs by itself. Look for, and apply to, scholarships provided by various organizations. If you are good at sports or music, or you attend a particular church, you may qualify for funding. If your parents work for the government or for a specific organization, you may also qualify for scholarships from them.

If you are in ROTC or you are a military member, you may qualify for grants or scholarships from these organizations. Depending on your service branch, look for scholarships there.

You should also consider work-study. You won’t have to repay this money; you earn it while you are working. You can be an undergraduate or a graduate student living on or off-campus and still be able to make use of the work-study program. While funds do depend on their availability at your school, there is usually no minimum or maximum amount that limits you. You can also apply for subsidized student loans, though you should make this your last resort, since you have to repay these.