A Federal Pell Grant is free financial aid money for students to attend college that requires no repayment.

The Federal Pell Grant is typically awarded to low-income undergraduate students to make postsecondary education more accessible to those with financial need. A Federal Pell Grant is one of four need-based grants.

Federal Pell Grant funds can be used for tuition and fees, room and board, transportation, books, supplies and more.

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Criteria

To be eligible for a Federal Pell Grant, you must first be an undergraduate or vocational student enrolled or accepted for enrollment in a participating school. Certain postbaccalaureate students in a teacher certification program might also be eligible. You must not have yet earned a bachelor’s or professional degree.

You are not eligible if you are incarcerated or subject to a civil commitment upon completion of incarceration for a forcible or non-forcible sexual offense. 

You must meet the government’s Basic Eligibility Criteria for federal financial aid, which you can learn more about here.

FAFSA

The only way to apply for a Federal Pell Grant is to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This application evaluates your financial need, which will determine whether or not you will be awarded a Federal Pell Grant.

The FAFSA will calculate your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). The EFC measures your family’s financial strength and is the most significant factor in determining a student’s need-based financial aid awards.

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I acknowledge and understand that by submitting this Contact Request form through clicking "Check Eligibility!", I provide my express consent to the following: (1) That I am bound by Eligibility.com LLC’s Privacy Policy and Terms of Use; (2) That I am not required to submit this form, and thereby agree to all terms located herein, as a condition to receive any property, goods, or services that may be offered, and that I may revoke my consent at any time.

The students with the greatest need for financial aid have an EFC of 0. As the EFC increases, the amount of the Federal Pell Grant award decreases. The maximum eligible EFC for the 2015-2016 academic year is 5198.

Calculation

Your Financial Need is the difference between your school’s Cost of Attendance (COA) and your Expected Family Contribution (EFC).

The amount of money you are awarded depends on this Financial Need equation as well as your enrollment status as a student. If you are a part-time student, your annual Federal Pell Grant award will be less than a full time student with the same financial need.

Note: You cannot receive more need-based aid than the amount of your Financial Need. So, if your COA is $5,500 and your EFC is 2500, you are not eligible for more than $3,000 in Federal Pell Grant aid.

Schools use the Federal Pell Grant Payment and Disbursement Schedules, which have separate formulas for full-time, ¾ time, ½ time, and less than ½ time students, to determine how much money each student receives in Federal Pell Grant funds. The Payment and Disbursement Schedules are set up as tables that match an EFC with a COA to find a monetary value for Federal Pell Grant awards.

Distribution

All funds are awarded at least once per term through participating collegiate institutions. They disburse the money either directly to the student, credit the funds to the student’s account, or use a combination of both payment methods.

Students may not use funds from their awarded Federal Pell Grants at more than one participating school at a time. Leftover funds may also only be used for school-related expenses.

A Federal Pell Grant is money that the federal government will give to students on a financial-need basis to attend college. The Federal Pell Grant program typically awards funds to low-income undergraduate students and some postbaccalaureate students. These grants never need to be repaid.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, $150 billion in financial aid is given to more than 50 million students every year in the form of grants, loans, and other options. Unlike loans, which are repaid typically with interest, grants are free money with no repayment stipulation.

To be awarded a Federal Pell Grant, you must first complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This is the only way to apply for federal student aid and will evaluate your financial situation. This information will be shared with the school(s) of your choosing. Each school’s financial aid office will then calculate your financial need and determine whether or not you are eligible for a Federal Pell Grant.

All Federal Pell Grants are awarded through participating collegiate institutions that disburse the money either directly to the student, credit the funds to the student’s account, or use a combination of both payment methods. Federal Pell Grant funds can be used for tuition and fees, room and board, transportation, books, supplies and more.

The amount awarded to students is determined not only by your financial need, but also the cost to attend your school, your full-time or part-time status as a student and the length you plan on attending your school.

The maximum Federal Pell Grant award varies from year to year, and the minimum award is at least 10 percent of the maximum.

Who is Eligible for a Pell Grant?

To be eligible for a Federal Pell Grant, you must:

  • be an undergraduate or vocational student enrolled or accepted to be enrolled in a participating school. Certain postbaccalaureate students in a teacher certification program might also be eligible
  • have not yet earned a bachelor’s or professional degree
  • meet the requirements of the Basic Eligibility Criteria for federal financial aid

Basic Eligibility Criteria

The federal government’s Basic Eligibility Criteria for federal financial aid requires that you do all of the following:

  • Have a high school diploma, GED certificate or equivalent
  • Demonstrate financial need
  • Be a U.S. citizen or eligible noncitizen
  • Have a valid Social Security number
  • If you are a male, register with the Selective Service, which you can do here or through the FAFSA
  • Be enrolled or accepted for enrollment as a regular student in an eligible degree or certificate program
  • Maintain satisfactory academic progress in your college or career school
  • Sign the certification statement on the FAFSA. This states that you are not in default on a federal student loan, that you do not owe money on a federal student grant, and that you will use federal student aid only for educational purposes.

Other Eligibility Details

You are not eligible to receive a Federal Pell Grant if you are incarcerated in a state or federal institution. You are also not eligible to receive a Federal Pell Grant if you have been convicted of a forcible or non-forcible sexual offense and have a civil commitment after completing a period of incarceration for that offense.

Additional details:

  • A student may be paid Federal Pell Grant funds to study at a foreign school only if the coursework is part of an eligible program at an eligible U.S. school.
  • An eligible undergraduate course typically does not exceed 4 academic years. If the program is more than 5 years, then students enrolled are only considered undergraduate students for the first four.
  • If the student has received an associate’s degree, but is enrolled in another undergraduate program, that student is considered an undergraduate student until the academic curriculum requirements for a first bachelor’s degree are completed.

Participating Schools

About 5,400 postsecondary institutions participate in the Federal Pell Grant Program. Students may use Federal Pell Grant funds at any one of the schools. You can view the full list of participating schools here.

Staying Eligible

Staying eligible for your Federal Pell Grant is very important. This means that you must continue to meet the Basic Eligibility Criteria and fill out the FAFSA every subsequent year. Federal Pell Grant eligibility is determined on an annual basis, so submitting a new FAFSA each year is critical.

Staying eligible also means making academic progress that is satisfactory to your school. Every school has its own satisfactory academic standards for financial aid. Be sure to check with your school’s website or financial aid office for their specific academic policy.

Suggested questions to ask your school regarding maintaining eligibility:

  • Do I need to maintain a certain grade point average?
  • Does an incomplete class, withdraw, change of major or transferred credits affect a satisfactory academic progress?
  • How often is my academic progress evaluated for financial aid?
  • How many credits must I complete each year to stay eligible?

Duration of Eligibility: A student may receive Federal Pell Grant funds for up to 12 semesters.

The Only Way to Apply for a Federal Pell Grant

The only way to apply for a Federal Pell Grant is to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This application evaluates your financial need and determines the amount of aid you are eligible for. It will determine whether or not you will be awarded a Federal Pell Grant.

Filling out and submitting the FAFSA is free, and there are several ways to fill it out:

  • Online at FAFSA.gov
  • Print and mail in. Download the PDF version of the FAFSA here: FAFSA Options. Mail the original copy to Federal Student Aid Programs, P.O. Box 7002, Mt. Vernon, IL, 62864-0072.
  • Request a paper FAFSA from your college or career school

Important Dates

The FAFSA will be available October 1st each year starting in 2016.

Information Needed for the FAFSA

The FAFSA form includes around 105 questions for the parent and student and addresses tax filing status, student’s income, legal residence, educational plans and much more. To complete the form, you will need the following financial and personal documents:

  • Social Security Number or Alien Registration Number if you are not a U.S. Citizen
  • Most recent federal income tax returns, W-2s, and other records of money earned
  • If applicable, records of untaxed income
  • If applicable, bank statements and records of investments

You will also need the Federal School Code of at least one college that you would like to receive your information. You can choose up to 10 colleges to list on the form, and each will receive your FAFSA information to determine financial aid packages specific to you and that school.

  • Use the Federal School Code Search (FAFSA School Search) to look up the codes of colleges you’d like to list on your FAFSA.
  • The Federal School Code Search also offers detailed information like a college’s tuition, fees, graduation rates and more so that you can compare options.

If you have any trouble or questions while filling out the FAFSA, call the federal student aid hot line at (800)4-FED-AID.

What Does the FAFSA Calculate?

Using the information that you have provided, the FAFSA will determine your Expected Family Contribution (EFC), which measures your family’s financial strength. The EFC is the most significant factor in determining a student’s need-based financial aid awards.

The formula to calculate your EFC takes into account the following:

  • The student’s income (plus assets if the student is independent)
  • The parents’ income and assets if the student is dependent
  • The family’s household size
  • The number of family members attending postsecondary institutions. This excludes parents.

The lower the EFC, the greater the student’s financial need.

Estimating Financial Aid

You can estimate your aid prior to filling out the FAFSA. The Office of Federal Student Aid provides the FAFSA4caster, a free financial aid calculator that can offer an early estimate of your financial aid eligibility. You enter basic financial information and your school’s cost of attendance, which can be looked up here on the College Navigator, and the FAFSA4caster will calculate your expected awards.

The calculator will indicate your estimated Federal Pell Grant amount—should you be eligible—your estimated Federal Work-Study amount, and your loan eligibility. 

Once the FAFSA is Submitted

Who receives your FAFSA information?

  • U.S. Department of Education
  • Financial Aid Offices of School(s) listed
  • Your state’s higher education agency
  • Higher education agencies in the state(s) of the school(s) listed on your FAFSA

After your FAFSA is processed, you will receive your Student Aid Report (SAR) from the Office of Federal Student Aid at the U.S. Department of Education.

Your SAR is a paper or electronic summary of the information submitted on your FAFSA. It is provided so that the student can verify its accuracy. It will also typically contain your EFC, the number used to determine your federal student aid eligibility and the amount of Federal Pell Grant funds. It will not tell you how much aid you will receive, but all school(s) listed will have access to it.

The federal government does not determine your financial aid award amount. The school(s) listed on your FAFSA will calculate it. 

The U.S. Department of Education gives each participating school enough funds to pay the Federal Pell Grant amounts for every eligible student. The Department also provides each school with the Federal Pell Grant Payment and Disbursement Schedules, which have separate formulas for full-time, ¾ time, ½ time, and less than ½ time students. Using these formulas, schools are able to determine how much money each student receives in Federal Pell Grant funds.

For the 2015-2016 Award Year, which is July 1, 2015, to June 30, 2016, the maximum Federal Pell Grant award is $5,775. The minimum Federal Pell Grant award is at least 10 percent of the maximum.

Scheduled and Annual Awards

A Scheduled Award is the amount that a student receives during an academic year assuming the student is enrolled full time for a full academic year. The Annual Award is the maximum amount a student would receive during a full academic year. For a full-time student, the annual and scheduled awards will be the same. 

Example: if your Scheduled Award is the maximum of $5,775, but you are enrolled as a ½ time student in a term program, your Annual Award would only be $2,888.

Calculating Financial Need

To determine the Federal Pell Grant amount, your EFC is taken into account.

  • The students with the greatest need for financial aid have an EFC of 0.
  • The maximum eligible EFC for the 2015-2016 award year is 5198.
  • As the EFC increases, the amount of the Federal Pell Grant award decreases.

Next, your school’s Cost of Attendance (COA) is taken into account. The COA is the amount that it will cost you to go to school. This includes tuition, room and board, books, supplies, transportation and more.

Your college must then determine your Financial Need.

Financial Need is the difference between your school’s Cost of Attendance (COA) and your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). Although the COA might certainly vary from school to school, your EFC will not change based on the school you attend.

Note: You cannot receive more need-based aid than the amount of your Financial Need. So, if your COA is $5,500 and your EFC is 2500, you are not eligible for more than $3,000 in Federal Pell Grant aid. 

Student Notes for Financial Need:

  • The greater the disparity between the cost of attending your institution and the money that your family can put toward your education, the higher your Financial Need.
  • And because Federal Pell Grants are primarily need-based, a high COA and low EFC will maximize your chances of qualifying. 

Enrollment Status

Once the school determines your Financial Need, your enrollment status must also be taken into account. The Pell Grant amount you can receive is fractionally pro-rated in accordance with your enrollment status.

Example: If you are attending part-time, your award amount will be based off the ¾ time, ½ time, or less than ½ time disbursement schedules. These are not calendar schedules, but rather charts that match specific EFCs with specific COAs to find a monetary value. 

It’s important to note that each school’s academic standard for enrollment status might differ based on standard or non-standard terms. For Standard Terms, which are semesters, trimesters or quarters, the minimum enrollment standards are:

  • Full-time: 12 semester credit hours per semester/trimester; 12 quarter hours per quarter
  • ¾ time: 9 semester credit hours per semester/trimester; 9 quarter hours per quarter
  • ½ time: 6 semester credit hours per semester/trimester; 6 quarter hours per quarter
  • Less than ½ time: less than half of the work load of the minimum full-time requirement

The 2015-2016 Federal Pell Grant Award Maximums:

Enrollment
Maximum
Full time
$5, 775
¾ time
$4, 331
½ time
$2,888
Less than ½ time
$1,444

Award Amount

Once the school(s) listed on your FAFSA have determined that you are eligible for a Federal Pell Grant and calculated the monetary value, the financial aid offices will send you an aid offer with the eligible amount. This is often called an award letter. 

This award letter will include the Federal Pell Grant award amount as well as any other types of financial aid you might receive from federal, state, private, and school sources. This combination of aid is called your Financial Aid Package.

You must accept your Financial Aid Package.

Federal Pell Grant funds cover a variety of costs and generally include the following:

  • All tuition and fees
  • Books, supplies, transportation, and miscellaneous personal expenses
  • Room and board or other living expenses
  • An allowance for dependent care expenses

The amount of Federal Pell Grant funds a student may receive in a lifetime is limited to the equivalent of six years of funding.

Disbursement

Students must be paid at least once per term, whether that is a semester, trimester or quarter.

Schools will generally credit the Federal Pell Grant funds to the student’s account to be used for tuition, fees, and room and board first. They might pay the student directly (typically with a check) or use a combination of both payment methods.

Any money left over is paid to the student. In some cases, you might be able to choose the payment method of leftover funds. Leftover funds may only be used for school-related expenses. 

Note: Students may not use funds from their awarded Federal Pell Grants at more than one participating school at a time.

Overawards and overpayments do exist when a student’s aid package exceeds his or her need. In these cases, the funds must be adjusted or repaid to continue eligibility.

Who To Contact If You Have Further Questions

For any further information or details on eligibility for Federal Pell Grants or any other federal financial aid opportunities, contact the Federal Student Aid Information Center at (800) 433-3243.

If you have any questions about filling out the FAFSA, you should contact the Federal Student Aid Information Center or visit FAFSA’s Help Page.

Federal Pell Grant and Financial Aid Resources

Below, you’ll find numerous websites and contacts that can help you determine Federal Pell Grant eligibility, provide assistance with FAFSA applications, and educate you on other financial aid options.

  • The U.S. Department of Education. This is an in-depth resource for all Federal Pell Grant and student financial aid information. Go to the Department of Education’s website or call (800) 433-3243.
  • The Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The application is the first step toward securing financial aid and Federal Pell Grant funds. Learn more about completing and submitting the FAFSA.
  • The Office of Federal Student Aid. Learn how the office can serve and guide you, the student here.
  • Information For Financial Aid Professionals (IFAP). This website provides guidance, resources, and information for the administration and processing of federal student aid. Although it is for the administrative side, it can be helpful if you’d like to find out how schools, states and organizations determine financial aid.