Understanding the Federal Pell Grant Program

Calendar Icon Updated November 22, 2019
Pell Grants

A program initiated by the federal government to alleviate the financial burden of college for low-income students, Federal Pell Grants are one of four need-based grants awarded.

Unlike other forms of financial aid, Federal Pell Grants require no repayment and are entirely free awards for those who are eligible.

To be eligible for a Federal Pell Grant, students must first be an undergraduate or vocational student enrolled or accepted for enrollment in a participating school. A full list of 5,400 participating postsecondary institutions can be found online.

Students must also meet the federal government’s Basic Eligibility Criteria for federal financial aid, which includes having a high school diploma or equivalent, being a U.S. citizen or eligible noncitizen, having a valid social security number, maintaining satisfactory academic progress once enrolled, and more.

Typically, an eligible undergraduate student will not exceed 4 academic years. However, 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.

Non-eligible students include anyone who is incarcerated or subject to a civil commitment upon completion of incarceration for a forcible or non-forcible sexual offense.

Beyond meeting the above requirements for Federal Pell Grant eligibility, students must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which will evaluate his or her financial situation. Because the funds are awarded through participating collegiate institutions, financial aid offices are provided a student’s FAFSA information, which is used to calculate Financial Need.

Not only does a student’s Financial Need determine his or her award amount, but the cost to attend the school and the student’s full-time or part-time status will also affect the amount awarded.

Funds from Federal Pell Grants can be used for tuition and fees, room and board, transportation, books, supplies and more, and while the maximum award amount varies from year to year, the minimum award is at least 10 percent.

All Federal Pell Grants are awarded through participating collegiate institutions. These schools fund the student directly, credit the money to the student’s account, or use a combination of both methods when disbursing the payments.

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