For those looking for financial aid to help pay for college, Federal Pell Grants, provided by the government, could be another source of financial support. Unlike loans, the money you get from Federal Pell Grants does not need to be paid back. Eligible students receive a specified amount each year under this program (Pell Grants are usually reserved for undergraduate students).

Federal Pell Grants are the largest source of federally funded grants. About one-third of undergraduate students received a Pell Grant (as of 2016). Pell Grants are awarded solely based on financial need — unlike scholarships, academic grades and extra-curricular activities are not a factor. You must meet general federal student aid eligibility requirements to be eligible to receive a Pell Grant.

How do I know if I am eligible for a Pell Grant?

Since the Pell Grant requires that you be eligible for federal student aid programs, be sure to complete and submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). General eligibility for federal aid programs also includes that you have financial need, are a U.S. citizen or eligible non-citizen, and are enrolled in an eligible degree or certificate program at your college or career school. You must also:

  • Be an undergraduate student who has not earned a bachelor’s degree (with some exceptions for students in post baccalaureate teaching programs)
  • Be enrolled or accepted for enrollment as a regular student in an eligible degree or certificate program
  • Have earned a high school diploma or a GED or have completed a high school education in an approved home-school setting

How to apply

As mentioned above, the Pell Grant application process is the same as any federal financial aid process—you need to complete the FAFSA. You should complete and submit the FAFSA as soon as possible, beginning October 1, especially because aid is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis. You’ll need to re-apply for a Pell Grant every year you want one by submitting the FAFSA.

Getting a Pell Grant award

The U.S. Department of Education determines your financial need by taking the information you supply when applying for a Pell Grant (i.e. your family income) and plugging it into a standard formula to produce a number called the Expected Family Contribution (EFC). The EFC is then compared to the expected cost of attending your college (tuition and fees, room and board, books, and supplies) to determine the financial aid for which you’re eligible.

You will receive financial aid award letters from the colleges that you have applied and been accepted to. Your financial aid award letters will outline how much the school will cost and what kind of financial aid package (if any) you would receive for one year. Your aid package will include any grants you’re eligible for, as well as scholarships, work-study, and federal student loans — this is where you would see Pell Grants listed. The maximum Pell Grant amount for the 2016-17 award year was $5,815.

For more information about Pell Grants and how they are disbursed, visit the U.S. Department of Education website.