Your Guide to Pell Grant Requirements

 March 31, 2021
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The government offers the Pell Grant to undergraduates with financial need to help them pay for college. The primary factor to get this grant is that you demonstrate financial need, but there are a few other Pell Grant requirements you must meet, too.

Read on to learn more about:

Pell Grant requirements

Pell Grant award amounts vary from year to year. The maximum for the 2021-22 school year is $6,495.

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To be eligible for the Pell Grant, you must demonstrate “exceptional financial need.” The government determines your need based on the information you provide on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

Other Pell Grant requirements include:

  • You’re seeking an undergraduate degree and haven’t already earned another degree.
  • You’re a graduate student working toward a post-baccalaureate teaching certificate.
  • You haven’t been incarcerated or involuntarily committed to a mental health unit after incarceration for a sexual offense.

There is also a maximum lifetime usage for this grant, with a limit of 12 terms (about six years) of aid.

Since the Pell Grant is a grant, not a loan, you typically won’t need to pay it back. However, there are some circumstances in which you would need to repay part (or all) of the grant:

  • You withdraw from school early.
  • Outside scholarships or grants cover your costs.
  • Your enrollment status changes your eligibility for the grant.

The final reason you would need to repay the funds from a Pell Grant is if you mistakenly receive more money than you were eligible for, known as “overpayment.” In this case, you must pay the excess back to your school or set up a payment plan to do so within 45 days of getting notice.

Pell Grant income limits

Since your financial need forms the basis of Pell Grant requirements, your family’s income level is a major qualifying factor. There’s no national income limit to worry about, but the Pell Grant amount you’re awarded will depend on your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) — as calculated on the FAFSA — and your school’s cost of attendance.

EFC is the amount that the government determines your family can afford to pay for college. There are multiple formulas used to calculate EFC based on factors like dependency and marital status, but you can see what yours might be by using the FAFSA4caster tool from the U.S. Department of Education. (Note that Estimated Family Contribution will be renamed Student Aid Index in the 2023-24 school year.)

If your family’s income renders you ineligible but your parent or guardian doesn’t have the intent or ability to pay for your schooling, the only way you can exclude their income is if you’re considered “independent.” Use this worksheet to help determine if you qualify as independent for purposes of the FAFSA.

It’s important to note that living separately from your parents doesn’t automatically designate you as independent when qualifying for federal college funding, and neither does the fact that your parents don’t claim you as a dependent on their tax forms.

How to apply for a Pell Grant

To apply for a Pell Grant, fill out the FAFSA every year, from your senior year of high school through college. This application puts you in the running for federal loans, work-study programs and grants — including the Pell Grant.

Best of all, filling out the FAFSA is free. Even if you think you won’t qualify for the Pell Grant or other federal aid, submit a FAFSA just in case you do — or at least to have access to student loans if you need them.

The FAFSA becomes available on Oct. 1 each year, and you’ll fill it out in order to get funding for the next academic year. There are three deadlines for the FAFSA: College, state and federal.

A good rule of thumb is to fill out the form as soon as possible to maximize the funding you receive, since some awards, like work-study, are given on a first-come, first served basis. Note that all eligible students will receive a Pell Grant, though, regardless of when they apply for financial aid.

After you apply, you’ll receive a Student Aid Report. Review it to make sure that the information on your FAFSA is correct. The next item will be an award letter from your college detailing how much aid you’ll receive — this letter will also let you know if you qualify for the Pell Grant.

Children of service members could be eligible for more aid

If you’re a child of a service member killed in military service in Iraq or Afghanistan after 9/11, you might be eligible for additional Pell Grant funds.

You must have been younger than 24 when your parent or guardian died, and you must be currently enrolled part-time or full-time in a college or a career school. According to the Federal Student Aid office, if you meet these requirements and are otherwise eligible for a Pell Grant, your EFC requirement will be zero. This can help you become eligible for more Pell Grant funds.

On the other hand, if you’re unable to get funding through the Pell Grant, you may qualify for the Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grant. The same eligibility criteria apply, and you can seek the grant simply by filling out a FAFSA.

This grant previously matched the maximum Pell Grant, but the maximum amount for grants disbursed after Oct. 1, 2020, is now $5,983.34.

Final quick tips about the Pell Grant

Here are a few quick pointers to remember about the need-based Pell Grant as you consider how to pay for college:

  • The Pell Grant is free aid for college — the money typically doesn’t have to be repaid (conditions may apply).
  • It’s free to apply for the Pell Grant, which you can do by submitting your FAFSA.
  • The maximum Pell Grant amount for the academic year 2021-22 is $6,495.
  • You can only use the Pell Grant for one school at a time.
  • The Pell Grant won’t affect the amount of other federal financial aid available to you.
  • Children of service members who died in Iraq or Afghanistan after 9/11 might be able to receive more Pell Grant funding.
  • Your school will disburse any federal aid you receive, including the Pell Grant.
  • Any funds left over from the grant after paying for tuition, fees and room and board (if applicable) is then disbursed directly to you.

Even if you think you won’t qualify for the Pell Grant, fill out your FAFSA anyway. It’s free, and it puts you in the running for other types of federal aid.

Of all Pell Grant requirements to know, this is the most important: You can’t receive any funding from this grant if you don’t fill out your FAFSA.

Rebecca Safier and Sarah Li Cain contributed to this report.

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