Your Complete Guide to Understanding the Pell Grant

Paying for college can be intimidating. With the cost of college tuition on the rise, it can be easy to assume that going to college means taking on massive amounts of debt, and for many students, college may seem like only a dream.

There are ways to pay for college. However, that don’t involve taking on massive amounts of student loans. Scholarships and grants are money that you don’t have to repay once you graduate, and one such grant, the Pell Grant, is an easy way to help fund the cost of going to college.

What is the Pell Grant?

The Pell Grant is a government grant given by the U.S. Department of Education and is intended to help offset the rising costs of post-secondary education. It’s a needs-based scholarship used to promote college attendance among low-income students. The U.S. Department of Education determines award amounts based on several different factors including income, family contributions, and full time or part time status.

Why should I apply for the Pell Grant?

When planning to pay for college, it’s important to consider grants and scholarships, as these do not need to be paid back. The Pell Grant is given by the U.S. Department of Education and is essentially “free money.” Average student loan debt increased last year to the tune of $33,000. Any financial help you can get that isn’t a loan is less you’ll owe when you are finished with your degree.

Who can receive the Pell Grant?

Students who demonstrate high financial need are eligible for the Pell Grant. You must be working on your bachelor's degree unless you have completed your undergraduate degree and are pursuing teacher certification.

Your undergraduate institution must also be a participating institution. You can find this information by contacting the financial aid office.

Students must also be citizens of the United States or a permanent resident with a green card. Students who are incarcerated, or have been convicted in the past of certain drug-related or sexual offenses are not eligible.

How much is the Pell Grant?

Pell grants are based on the student’s financial need. This includes the student’s income, any expected family contributions, and both student's and the student’s family’s assets. Grants are also awarded based on the expected cost of attendance for a particular institution. For the 2016-17 school year, for example, the maximum award was $5,815.

How do I apply for a Pell Grant?

Although many scholarships require a particular application, the Pell Grant is considered part of your Free Application for Federal Student Aid form. You can fill out the FAFSA in three ways.

  • 1. You can log on to and complete the requirements.
  • 2. You can also download a PDF of the application, print it, and mail it to the address given on the form.
  • 3. You can also get the paper application by calling the toll free number from the U.S. Department of Education and mail to the address on the form.

However, it is highly recommended to complete the application online for fast, accurate results.​

Do I have to apply every year?

The Pell Grant has not renewed automatically. Each year, when you fill out the FAFSA for the upcoming school year, the government recalculates your new Pell Grant award based on your responses.

You must also maintain satisfactory academic progress defined by your institution. Additionally, if your financial status increases significantly, you may become ineligible for the award.

It is critical to remain in good standing with any federal student financial aid, as failing to maintain proper standing can affect your ability to receive aid in the future.

How many times can I renew?

As of July 2012, there is a limit of 12 semesters, or roughly six years, that a student can receive Pell Grant funds. You will receive a notice if you are getting close to your limit.

How do I receive money? How can I use the money?

When you receive your award, your school’s financial aid office can disburse the funds to your outstanding accounts. Funds can be used to pay for tuition costs, or for registration fees, room and board costs, and lab fees. If there are any leftover funds, they will be disbursed directly to you. The school can also pay the funds to you directly, or use a combination of both methods.

Although grant money does not have to be repaid, it is a good idea to use any remaining money to pay for other college-related expenses such as transportation or supplies.

Can I receive additional funds than the awarded amount?

Under certain circumstances, a student is eligible for a larger award. If your parent was a member of the U.S. military and was killed in service performed in Iraq or Afghanistan after the events of September 11, you may be eligible for additional funds. You had to have been less than 24 years old and enrolled in college or career school at least part-time at the time of your parent’s death.

If you meet these requirements, the expected family contribution is calculated as if it were zero. Award amounts are adjusted if you enroll less than full time.

What if I receive other financial aid?

The Pell Grant amount is not affected by other federal aid for which you qualify. If you are eligible for the award, you will receive the full amount that you are entitled to with your income and assets, and that of your family contributions. All schools participating in the Pell grant receive enough money to pay the amounts for all eligible students.

Can I receive Pell Grant awards for graduate degrees?

Graduate students are ineligible to receive funds from the Pell Grant. However, students pursuing post-baccalaureate teacher certification are eligible. The program must not lead to a graduate degree, must be treated as an undergraduate degree, and must consist of courses required by the state for certification or license to teach elementary or secondary education in that particular state.