What Is a Pell Grant? How to Get Your $6,495

Jon O'Donnell Updated on April 7, 2021

A Pell Grant is an extremely valuable component of federal financial aid. Because it's a grant, you don't have to pay it back. Free money? Yes, please.

If you qualify, a Federal Pell Grant could add as much as $6,495 to your college coffers. 

New Call-to-action

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 may still see a partial Pell Grant coming your way. Here's what you need to know.

What is a Pell Grant?

The Pell Grant is federal subsidy intended for students with financial need. But "need" isn't as cut-and-dried as it may seem on the surface.

That is, need isn't determined solely by your family income. It also factors in things like how many children your family has in college, your family's assets, and your college’s cost of attendance (COA). COA is an estimate of tuition, books, room and board, etc., that you’ll find on the school’s website.

Apply for the $2,000 Nitro College Scholarship. No essay required!

However, it's important to know that 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 it could also include a minimum hours or credits requirement.

How do I apply for a Pell Grant?

Fill out the FAFSA, a.k.a., the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. You should complete the FAFSA even if you believe you will not qualify for financial aid. Colleges tell us that failing to apply for FAFSA is the biggest mistake a student can make

If you're a current high school senior or you're already in college, you should complete the FAFSA right away. You can apply for aid through FAFSA for the 2020-2021 school year until June 30, 2021. However, applying early is best so you don't miss out first-come, first-serve financial aid options, such as work-study or certain scholarships that are awarded based on your FAFSA.

For the 2021-2022 school year, FAFSA opened on October 1,  2020 and closes on June 30, 2022. 

If you're a high school junior graduating in 2022, plan on filling out the FAFSA this fall so the application can be processed along with your college applications. The FAFSA is a key component in creating your financial aid package, known as your Student Aid Report (SAR), which will tell you how much aid you’ll receive.

If you need help filling out the FAFSA, check out our
step-by-step guide.


  1. You will need to fill out your FAFSA every year to determine ongoing Pell Grant eligibility.
  2. Be sure to fill out your FAFSA as soon as you are able. Many forms of financial aid are finite, so you are not guaranteed aid even if you qualify.
  3. Your SAR will require a response to claim your Pell Grant. If you don't respond, you could end up forfeiting your award.

What are the requirements for a Pell Grant?

  • You have to be a U.S. citizen 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.
  • You must be in or accepted to an eligible certificate or degree program before receiving your Pell Grant funds.  

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.

How much aid I can get?

Currently, the max award is $6,495 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.

In simpler terms, that means you can receive up to the max Pell Grant limit every year for a total of six years. 

How can I use my Pell Grant?

Use your Pell Grant to pay for qualified educational expenses, such as:

  • Tuition
  • College fees, such as computer labs, libraries, health centers, and athletic facilities
  • Textbooks and supplies (not just pen, paper, and binders, but also course-specific things like safety glasses for chemistry lab)
  • Room and board
  • Costs for dependent-care expenses, such as daycare, if you have dependents

Do I ever need to repay a Pell Grant?

Usually, no, although there are certain circumstances that might require you to repay your grant.

Those are:

  • 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 reduced your need for federal aid.
  • You did not fulfill the obligations of your TEACH Grant service.

When will I get my money?

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, or cost of attendance (tuition, fees, room and board), your expected family contribution (EFC), and the aid available to you.

Pell Grants are paid to students through colleges and universities. 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.

Want to learn more about financial aid? See How to Read Your Financial Aid Award Letter: 5 Examples.

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

Additional Nitro Recommended Student Loan Lenders

Lender Rates (APR) Loan Types Terms Eligible Degrees Eligible Loans  
1.13% - 12.60%1 Variable & Fixed 10 - 15 years

Undergrad Students Learn More

View Disclosure

Lender Rates (APR) Loan Types Terms Eligible Degrees Eligible Loans  
0.99% - 12.99%1 Variable & Fixed 5 - 15 years

Undergrad & Graduate Student & Parent Learn More

View Disclosure

Lender Rates (APR) Loan Types Terms Eligible Degrees Eligible Loans  
1.48% - 12.95%1 Variable & Fixed 5 - 15 years


Undergrad & Graduate Students Learn More

View Disclosure

Lender Rates (APR) Loan Types Terms Eligible Degrees Eligible Loans  
1.03% - 10.95%1 Variable & Fixed 5 - 15 years

See Examples

Undergrad & Graduate Student & Parent Learn More

View Disclosure

Lender Rates (APR) Loan Types Terms Eligible Degrees Eligible Loans  
1.20% - 11.99%1 Variable & Fixed 5 - 15 years

Undergrad & Graduate Student & Parent Learn More

View Disclosure

Lender Rates (APR) Loan Types Terms Eligible Degrees Eligible Loans  
0.99% - 11.33%1 Variable & Fixed 5, 10 & 15 years

Undergrad & Graduate Student & Parent Learn More

View Disclosure


Do you still have a gap to fund your education?

If so, check out these 6 featured lenders:

Find your best option