What Is a Pell Grant? How to Get Your $5,920...

Jon O'Donnell Updated on December 14, 2017

Free money? Yes, please. Who wouldn't want some of that? If you qualify, a Federal Pell Grant could add as much as $5,920 to your college coffers. And most people don't have to pay that back.

Last year, 33% of all students received Pell Grants. That's over 7.5 million people.

A crucial thing to know about Pell Grants is that they aren’t all-or-nothing. You might receive the full amount. Great! But even if you don’t qualify for all of it, you can still see a partial Pell Grant coming your way.

What Is A Pell Grant?

It’s a Federal subsidy intended for students with financial need. Need isn’t determined solely by your family income; it also factors in how many children your family has in college, family assets, and your college’s cost of attendance (COA). That’s an estimate of tuition, books, room and board, etc., that you’ll find on the school’s website. Pell Grants are, in essence, the cornerstone of your financial aid package. Your FAFSA information will determine your eligibility and, if you qualify, the amount you'll receive.

Pell Grant recipients are obligated to achieve a standard of academic success. Check your school’s website to see what defines satisfactory academic progress. Often this involves maintaining a certain grade-point average, but could also include a minimum hours or credits requirement.

How and When Do I Apply For A Pell Grant?

Easy! Fill out your FAFSA. That's it. For the 2018-19 school year, the FAFSA open date is this October 1, with a deadline of June 30, 2019. Your FAFSA will help create your Student Aid Report (SAR), which will tell you how much aid you’ll receive. If you are looking for some help filling out the FAFSA, check out this step-by-step guide.

You will need to fill out your FAFSA every year to determine ongoing Pell Grant eligibility. Be sure you apply as soon as possible--Pell Grants are a finite resource. And your SAR will require a response to claim your Pell Grant.

What Are The Requirements For A Pell Grant?

For starters, you have to be a U.S. citizens or an eligible non-citizen (such as a permanent resident). You need to hold a high school diploma, GED, or approved home-school certification. You’ll need a valid Social Security Number. If you’re a male between ages 18 and 25, you’ll need to be registered with Selective Service. And you must be in or accepted to an eligible certificate or degree program.

Pell Grants are primarily for undergrads working toward their first degree; students in select post-graduate teaching programs may also be eligible. You can qualify for a Pell Grant even if you only attend school part-time, but in all likelihood you won't get the full amount.

What's The Most I Can Get?

Currently, the max award is $5,920 per school year. This figure can change from year to year, depending on funding. You can receive only one Pell Grant per year, and from just one college at a time. Federal law mandates a lifetime limit equivalent to six years of Pell Grant funding. Since the maximum award you can receive in one year is 100% of available Pell Grant aid, you are then, over your college career, limited to 600% of available Pell Grant funding. Yeah, it’s a little confusing. Studentaid.ed.gov explains it fully, right here.

How Can I Use My Pell Grant?

Use your Pell Grant to pay for tuition; college fees such as computer labs, libraries, health centers, and athletic facilities; and textbooks and supplies (not just pen, paper, and binders, but also course-specific things like safety glasses for chemistry lab). All these are qualified education expenses and will be tax-exempt. If your university requires you to live on campus and you use some of your Pell Grant to pay for that, you’ll have to report that amount as income on your taxes.

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Why Would I Need To Repay A Pell Grant?

A grant is usually something you don’t need to repay. For the vast majority of Pell Grant recipients, that’s the case. But here are some specific events that would require you to pay back some or all of your grant.

  • Your withdrawal from the degree program that qualified you for the grant.
  • Your enrollment status changes in a way that reduces your eligibility (i.e., your full-time enrollment becomes part-time.)
  • You’ve received external scholarships or grants that reduce your need for Federal aid.
  • You did not fulfill the obligations of your TEACH Grant service.

When Will I Get My Pell Grant?

If you’re planning to start college in the fall, look for your financial aid award letters from the university. Once schools you’re applying to have processed your FAFSA and any school-specific financial aid applications, you’ll begin receiving financial aid award letters and can begin comparing offers. The letters will detail the school’s COA (tuition, fees, room and board), your expected family contribution (EFC), and the aid available to you. Your school will let you know in writing how and when you'll be paid. Some schools may first opt to apply that grant directly to your COA; some may cut you a check. Some may do a little of each. Your school is obligated to pay you once per term, or twice per academic year. It varies, so check with your financial aid office.

Published in: Grants

About the Author
Jon O'Donnell

Jon is a writer and marketer for Nitro who is passionate about bringing transparency to the student loan process along with providing families with the information needed to make smart financial decisions. He also just recently refinanced his student loans allowing him to pay them off 5 years faster all while saving an additional $152/month. As he continues to pay them off himself, he strives to help others do the same. Jon also has a long history of connecting people with educational opportunities to help them improve their careers and their overall personal finances. In his free time you can find him reading travel blogs and researching destinations around the world in search of his next adventure. Read more by Jon O'Donnell

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