Mike Brown Updated on October 4, 2017

You know that a Pell Grant is, in essence, free money.

You don't have to pay it back. There is, however, a built-in limit--and it's not solely monetary. It also has to do with time.

Basically, whether you're an undergrad or a graduate student in a teacher certification track, you can receive a Pell Grant for 12 semesters. Twelve. That's equal to six years of full-time study. And, just so we're clear, you've got to apply for the Pell Grant every year.

Once accepted to a school, Pell Grants are awarded by those schools. 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.

So, what's it worth? Well, the maximum amount for a Pell Grant changes annually. For 2017-2018, the most you can receive from a Pell Grant is $5,920. But not everyone will get that much. 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. Another big factor: the timeliness of your application. This 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.

Over the course of 12 semesters, all Pell Grants count toward your Lifetime Eligibility Used (LEU) percentage. The Pell Grant monies you receive each year--whatever the amount--is considered 100% of your grant eligibility for that award year; your Pell lifetime eligibility maximum is 600%. 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 $6,000, but were only in school for one semester, you would actually receive $3,000--which is 50% of your scheduled award for that year.

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. (Each semester being approximately 50% of your annual allowance.)

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.
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