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What Is the Pell Grant Lifetime Limit? (And Does It Apply to Me?)

4You're probably expecting a dollar amount to answer the question in the headline ... but the Pell Grant Lifetime Eligibility is better explained with a different number unit: time. 

The fast answer is that you're entitled to receive financial aid in the form of Pell Grants for the equivalent of six years (or 12 semesters). During that time, you're eligible to receive the maximum amount of Pell Grant aid that you qualify for every year.

So, hypothetically, if you qualify for the current maximum of Pell Grant aid ($6,495 for the 2021-2022 school year) and you continue to qualify for that amount every year for six years, you could collect $38,970 in federal aid.

Of course, like most things connected to the federal government, there's more to this calculation than meets the eye. Let's talk about what it means to you. 

How to get a Pell Grant

There is no official “Pell Grant application.” You’re automatically considered for the Pell Grant when you apply for FAFSA, or the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. And, just so we're clear, you've got to apply for the Pell Grant every year.

Once you're accepted to a school and you enroll, your Pell Grant money will be distributed to you by that institution.

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How much you can get

Not everyone will receive the max amount of Pell Grant aid.

What you receive will be impacted by the cost of your school's tuition, your Expected Family Contribution (EFC), and whether or not you'll be attending school full- or part-time. Keep in mind, you may qualify for different amounts in different years if there is a fluctuation in your family's financial situation, or if the amount of the Pell Grant changes (which can happen any year). 

Another big factor: the timeliness of your application. Pell Grant money is given directly to more than 5,400 participating institutions, and each school distributes its share first to applicants who demonstrate need, based on FAFSA information. If you wait too long to apply, you run the risk of encountering an empty well. Don't delay. The award year begins July 1.

How Lifetime Eligibility works

Over the course of 12 semesters, all Pell Grant money counts toward your Lifetime Eligibility Used (LEU) percentage.

The Pell Grant monies you receive each year—whatever the amount—are considered 100% of your grant eligibility for that award year. Your Pell lifetime eligibility maximum is 600% over the course of your lifetime. That's equal to a 100% Pell Grant each year for six years. Consequently, your Pell lifetime eligibility is limited by how long you're enrolled, not how much you receive.

And because we know you love percentages as much as we do, consider this as well: If you receive an annual Pell Grant award of roughly $6,000, but you were only in school for one semester, you would actually receive $3,000—which is 50% of your scheduled award for that year. Why? Because even though Pell Grants are awarded by year, they are usually divided into two semesters—so you get half of your award before the fall semester and half before the spring.

That means if you drop of out school and return later, you may still be eligible for Pell Grant money, as long as you haven't used 600% of your aid. 

If this is confusing, know that you can keep tabs on your LEU via the Financial Aid Review information in your National Student Loan Data System account. If you look there and see an LEU of 200%, in essence that means you've received two full years' worth of Pell Grants. 

Points to ponder:

  • Dropping a course? Be sure to do so early because you might not be able to recoup any grant money from that semester—and it will still count toward your LEU.
  • Dual-degree major? You might hit the lifetime maximum faster than a single-major student.
  • Switching majors? Will your new path take you beyond a 12 semester time frame? If so, you won't be eligible for a Pell Grant come that 13th semester.
  • You must be a U.S. citizen or a permanent resident with a green card with a clean legal record to qualify.
  • Once you receive a Pell Grant, you must maintain a certain academic standard established by your school.
  • A student whose parent was killed in military duty in Iraq or Afghanistan, as well as students with certain intellectual disabilities, may be eligible for special Pell Grant funding.
  • Pell Grants are generally not available for post-grad studies, with the exception of certain education degrees. 

See also: What Is a Pell Grant? How to Get Your $6,195

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