Your Comprehensive Guide to Pell Grants

Ana-Marcela Lopez / Colleges of Distinction »

Did you know that there are a million fewer students in college in the United States this year than in the fall of 2019?

The pandemic has hit low-income students and their families the hardest, forcing many to drop out of school and enter the workforce rather than continue to pursue their education.

If this sounds like your situation, you’re not alone. Even if it feels like your plans to go to college have been hindered, you might want to reassess the options that are nevertheless available to help. There are a multitude of local, state, and federal grant and scholarship options available to help you pay for your education.

One of the most well-known of these options is the Federal Pell Grant. Provided through the federal government, this grant program has helped make college affordable for many low- and moderate-income students throughout the country.

If you’re new to the financial aid scene, the whole process can seem very murky. What are Pell Grants? How do you know if you qualify, and what do you have to do to apply?

We’ve collected all this information and more to help you navigate the application process. Keep reading to learn everything you need to know about Federal Pell Grants and how to apply for them.


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What Is a Pell Grant?

Federal Pell Grants are a form of financial aid available to low-income college students and prospective college students. In general, only undergraduate students qualify to receive a Pell Grant. (If you’re looking for funding options for a master’s or doctoral program, you’ll need to look for other options instead.)

While Pell Grant funding is disbursed through your school, the funding itself actually comes from the federal government. This means that no matter where you go to school, you’ll be eligible for the same amount of funding through the Pell Grant program.

The money you’re offered can be used for multiple costs related to your education. These include tuition and fees, housing costs, and purchasing books and other materials for your classes. Since these funds are a grant and not a loan, they do not need to be repaid after you graduate!

How to Apply

Zully Rodriguez, Associate Director of Student Financial Aid at the University of Hartford, has teamed up with Colleges of Distinction to help you understand the steps needed to nail down this grant money. 

“Students can apply for the Federal Pell Grant by submitting a FAFSA form (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) at studentaid.gov,” says Rodriguez. “A FAFSA form is required each academic year a student is enrolled in order to remain eligible for federal student aid. Recipients must also maintain satisfactory academic progress as determined by their school. There are other basic eligibility requirements for federal student aid such as citizenship status, being in good standing on any previously borrowed student loans, and not reaching maximum limits on federal student aid.” By filling out the FAFSA, you also become eligible for other federal grants and loans to help you pay for school.

FAFSA:

You can start filling out the FAFSA as early as October 1 for the upcoming school year, with time to complete it by June 30 of the year in which you are applying for aid.

However, many states and individual institutions have their own deadlines for the FAFSA that are much earlier than the federal deadline. Double-check to make sure you’re meeting the deadlines for your schools of choice as well as the federal deadline.


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To fill out the FAFSA, you’ll need your social security number, your most recent income tax return information, and a record of your investments. If you are listed as a dependent on someone else’s tax return, you’ll need their information as well.

And remember, as it says in the name: FAFSA is always free to fill out.

Federal Pell Grant Requirements

As we mentioned earlier, the Pell Grant is available to low-income current and prospective undergraduate students. Your income level is determined through the information provided on your FAFSA application. They’ll use your Expected Family Contribution (how much you expect your parent(s)/guardian(s) to help you pay your tuition), your total assets, and other financial information to determine the amount of funding you qualify for during the current school year.

Keep in mind that there is a limit to the number of semesters for which you can receive Pell Grant aid. Once you’ve received Pell Grants for twelve total semesters (approximately six years), you’ll no longer be eligible.

How Much Money Can I Get From Pell Grants?

The Pell Grant, unlike other forms of aid, is a fixed amount based on your financial information. This means that you won’t get more money from Pell Grants if you fill out your FAFSA ahead of the deadline, but it also means that you won’t lose out on potential grant funding if you have to wait to apply until later in the application window.

UHart’s Zully Rodriguez notes that the amount of money given through the Pell Grant varies based on a number of factors. “Amounts of the award can vary each academic year, as they coincide with the results of the FAFSA form, students’ cost of attendance, and credit load.


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“If you are eligible for the Federal Pell Grant you will receive the award in which you qualify for based on the results of your submitted FAFSA form. The award in which you are eligible for will be applied for each period of enrollment for the academic year. This will vary by institution.”

Why Pell Grants?

Even if you’re not sure whether you’ll be eligible for federal aid for college, taking the time to fill out the FAFSA is a good idea. Every little bit helps, so even if you only qualify for a small amount of Pell Grants in the upcoming school year, that’s still some money that you won’t have to pay back after you graduate.

Also, applying for Pell Grants is generally easier than applying for other types of scholarships or grants. You don’t have to write an essay, propose a project, or prove your academic merit in some other way. All you have to do is turn in your (or your parents’ or guardians’) financial information to find out your eligibility.

Apply for a Federal Pell Grant Today

Pell Grants are a great option for helping to finance your education. By applying for as many grants as you can, you’ll minimize the number of student loans you’ll graduate with and set yourself up for long-term success. Fill out the FAFSA today, and find out how much aid you can get!

Now that you know how to fill out the FAFSA, how do you figure out which school is right for you? We like to think that we’re a pretty good place to start. Use our school search tool to find the college or university of your dreams!