What is a Pell Grant and how do I apply?

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Paying for college isn’t an easy feat; after all, the average cost of tuition and fees at public four-year, in-state institutions rose to $10,560 nationally for the 2020-21 school year per CollegeBoard figures, and that annual figure doesn’t even include room and board. Fortunately, many students can qualify for federal aid, including Pell Grants.

Pell Grants are need-based student aid that does not need to be repaid. They can be used to pay for tuition, books, room and board and more, making them a great avenue for low-income students to attend and graduate from college when they may not be able to afford to otherwise.

What is a Federal Pell Grant?

A Pell Grant is a form of need-based federal student aid available to students in the United States. Pell Grants can cover all or a portion of tuition costs, as well as books, supplies and personal expenses like room and board. Unlike student loans, however, Pell Grants don’t have to be repaid under most circumstances.

The federal government created Pell Grants in order to help students with the most amount of financial need. As a result, these grants aren’t always easy to qualify for. However, those who do qualify receive substantial aid that they can use alongside student loans, scholarships and other grants. While Pell Grants aren’t necessarily designed to cover the full cost of attending college, they can certainly help.

How much money can I get from the Pell Grant?

Pell Grants are intended to supplement other forms of financial aid, such as scholarships and student loans. Every year, the U.S. Department of Education sets the maximum amount of each Pell Grant award; for the 2021-22 school year, that amount is $6,495. The grant may be even higher for certain students who had a parent killed in the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. Still, not every student is eligible to receive the full award, and some don’t qualify at all.

Also be aware that the amount you receive can vary based on factors like your Expected Family Contribution, the cost of your school, whether you attend school full time or part time and any plans you have to attend school for a full academic year or less than that.

Eligible students can receive the Pell Grant each year they’re enrolled, up to 12 semesters or roughly six years.

Am I eligible for a Pell Grant?

Pell Grants are available only to undergraduate students, so you can’t rely on this type of aid while you’re earning an advanced degree — the one exception being postbaccalaureate teacher certification programs. Pell Grants are also not available to incarcerated individuals.

Since eligibility for Pell Grants is based on the Expected Family Contribution amount and not income, there is no specific income cutoff to consider. However, these grants are geared to students who experience exceptional financial need, so those from low-income families are most likely to qualify.

The cost of attendance is also factored in, which includes not only tuition but also room and board, books, supplies and even certain fees associated with study-abroad programs.

How do I apply for a Pell Grant?

To see if you qualify for a Pell Grant and other financial aid, you’ll start by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This form helps schools and government bodies determine how much aid each student is eligible for.

The FAFSA must be completed again each year to maintain eligibility for Pell Grants and other financial aid.

How do I receive my Pell Grant?

Generally speaking, your school will handle your Pell Grant funds, but you might also be paid directly. In some cases, schools will combine these methods — most likely, the school will apply the funds to your tuition and fees and send you any money that is left.

Frequently asked questions about Pell Grants

How do I check my Pell Grant status?

To qualify for Pell Grant funds, you’ll fill out a FAFSA form every year you’re in school. Pell Grant funding is available for undergraduate students, and you’ll find out whether you’re eligible after your FAFSA is processed. You can check the status of your FAFSA on the “My FAFSA” page online or at your school’s financial aid office.

What can I spend my Pell Grant on?

Pell Grant funds can be used to cover tuition and fees for school, though you cannot use the funds to finance your education at more than one school at a time. Outside of tuition and fees, however, you can use the funds for books, technology expenses, transportation and supplies.

Money received through a Pell Grant is tax-free provided you use the funds for eligible educational expenses. However, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) states that you have to keep track of Pell Grant money spent on incidental purchases (room and board, optional equipment, etc.) and include them in your gross income for tax purposes.

How do I maintain my grant?

All you have to do to maintain your grant is fill out a FAFSA form every year you pursue an undergraduate degree, up to 12 school terms.

Can I still receive a Pell Grant as a part-time student?

Yes, you can receive Pell Grant funds as a part-time student. However, you may receive a lower amount of aid than you would if you were to attend college on a full-time basis.

Other college funding options

Since Pell Grants can pay a maximum of $6,495 per year in most cases, many students have to rely on additional funding to make it through college. Fortunately, there are a broad range of options when it comes to funding higher education, ranging from student loans, work-study programs, scholarships and other grants.

At the end of the day, a Pell Grant can get you part of the way there if you’re pursuing an undergraduate degree. If you hope to qualify and feel you may be eligible for this type of aid, filling out the FAFSA form before the deadline is the only way to find out.

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Written by
Holly D. Johnson
Author, Award-Winning Writer
Holly Johnson began her career working in the funeral industry, which may make you wonder why she works in personal finance now. Yet, the funeral industry taught the author everything she needs to know about the value of one's money and time. Johnson left the mortuary business a decade ago in order to explore her passion for personal finance and travel the world, and since then, she and her husband have built a debt-free lifestyle that has them on the path to retire very wealthy in their 40s. Holly's love of budgeting also led to the creation of her debt payoff book, “Zero Down Your Debt: Reclaim Your Income and Build a Life You’ll Love."
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