What’s a Pell Grant and Can I Get One?

pell grantA Pell Grant is free money to attend college that you don’t have to pay back. You can get one if you’re a low-income student, and even non-traditional students can apply for the grant. If you’re eligible to get federal money for college, the grant can mean the difference between affording college or not.

Going to college is an expensive venture. Statistics show that, depending on in-state or out-of-state colleges, average tuition and fees range between $22,180 and $38,640. That is a whopping amount of money, especially if you’re not making very much right now. But apply for and getting a Pell Grant can make going back to school more affordable. 

What do you need to do to get your hands on free tuition money? This article explains what a Pell Grant is and how you can get one.

What is a Pell Grant?

The Federal Pell Grant Program is needs-based financial assistance to help undergraduates pursue postsecondary education. Eligible students can use the free federal money to enroll in degree programs at approved colleges. The grant goes towards paying for tuition, fees, accommodation, and any additional education-related expenses.

The U.S. Department of Education says that Pell Grants depend on the following four things:

  • The expected family contribution from the student
  • The cost of attending college
  • Enrollment status — full-time or part-time student
  • Length of time you plan to attend college

Who Can Get One?

Students and non-traditional students who have exceptional financial need can get a Pell Grant. The application starts by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Generally, if your family’s income is below $50,000, you should be eligible for the grant. 

Related reading: Important information about the FAFSA.

Apart from showing that you need financial help to go to college, you have to meet additional criteria to get college money. Here are other eligibility requirements for getting a Pell Grant:

  • Must be a U.S. citizen or eligible noncitizen
  • You enroll as an undergraduate — in other words, don’t already possess a bachelor’s, graduate, or professional degree
  • You are not in prison or have been convicted of certain crimes
  • The college you attend participates in the federal student aid program
  • You may have to meet the Grade Point Average (GPA) requirements to continue getting money

It’s also important to remember that there is a limit to how much money you receive over your lifetime. The government’s benefits website says that you’re only eligible for grant money for up to 12 semesters, or six years.

How Do Pell Grants Work?

If you’re eligible for free tuition money, your college or university puts the grant toward your bill. The grant money automatically pays for tuition, fees, and accommodation. If there’s money left over, you can use that to pay for course books or materials.

Each college has its own way of distributing Pell Grant funds. Some pay students before the first day of classes, whereas others make monthly payments.

How Much Can You Get?

The amount of free Pell Grant money depends on your circumstances. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the maximum grant amount for the 2020-21 year is $6,345. But you could receive less, depending on your family’s contribution, cost of tuition, or if you plan to attend college for less than a full year.

Here is a way to work out how free tuition money you can get:

  • Cost of Attendance (COA) — This includes tuition, fees, books, room and board, childcare, and other study-related expenses.
  • Expected Family Contribution (EFC) — This number considers your family’s income, benefits, and the size of family.
  • Financial Aid Awarded So Far — All the additional financial assistance you receive, for example, scholarships.

To calculate your financial need, subtract the EFC number from the COA. The result will be the maximum amount of the Pell Grant you are eligible for. For example, if your COA is $17,000 and the EFC is 13000, you can’t get more than $4,000 in free money.

Do You Have to Repay It?

Usually, you don’t have to pay back money Pell Grant money. The money is not like a loan that you get for non-need-based financial aid. As long as you stick to the terms of the grant, the money is yours for free.

In some circumstances, you might have to repay the grant money. For example, if you get a scholarship, your need-based financial aid changes. Or if you change from full-time to part-time or drop out of school, you may have to pay back the grant.

How to Apply for a Pell Grant

Filling out the FAFSA is the first step to apply for a Pell Grant. The FAFSA determines if you’re eligible for the Pell Grant, scholarships, subsidized student loans, or other grants. The EFC number on the form will establish how much help you receive. Without the FAFSA form, you can’t qualify for any kind of financial aid.

Generally, the deadline to submit the FAFSA is June 30.

Here are a few essential facts to remember about the Pell Grant:

  • You can get a Pell Grant even if you are taking an associate’s degree course
  • Pell Grant applications are accepted throughout the year
  • If you already have a bachelor’s degree and are pursuing teacher certification you can apply
  • Not all colleges and career schools are in the federal student aid program

Related reading: How to avoid costly FAFSA mistakes.

You should still file the FAFSA even if you don’t think you qualify. A report by the U.S. Department of Education found that millions of students could have gotten Pell Grant money, but they didn’t apply. Over one million students would have received the full amount in financial aid.

So, there is free education money on the table in the form of grants and scholarships if you apply for it.

Getting the Pell Grant: The Bottom Line

The Pell Grant is a way to help fund your college education and get a degree. Free college money can lower the financial burden of postsecondary learning. While it doesn’t make college free, the Pell Grant can make getting a degree affordable for you.

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