Every year, more than nine million students qualify for the federal Pell Grant, which can be used at any accredited four-year school, two-year school, community college, vocational training program, professional degree or certification program both in the United States and in several locations abroad. The maximum amount of the Pell Grant students can receive changes each year. For the 2013-2014 school year, the maximum amount was set at $5,645, but as of July 1, 2014, that amount goes up to $5,730 for the 2014-2015 year.
To qualify for a Pell Grant, or any other federal grants, loans or work-study jobs for that matter, students need to be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident, have a valid Social Security number and be enrolled at least half-time in an accredited education program. The Pell Grant is reserved strictly for undergrads pursuing their first degree -- grad students and those headed back to campus for a second bachelor's, associate or professional degree aren't eligible -- and it's available for up to 12 semesters (about six years) to students of any age. (For example, a stay-at-home parent who decides later to head back to school to start or finish an undergrad degrees can also qualify.)
Demonstrated Financial Need
Unlike merit-based awards such as athletic or academic scholarships, Pell Grants are awarded based on demonstrated financial need, but that doesn't always mean those with the lowest income. Low-income students are certainly the most eligible for Pell awards, but middle-income families may qualify if their college expenses or family sizes are high. Even if you haven't officially applied for federal financial aid, you can get an idea of whether you qualify for the Pell Grant as well as other government aid programs by using the Department of Education's FAFSA 4Caster tool at Fafsa4caster.ed.gov. Many students qualify for the full grant amount, but some students with lower financial need or reduced college costs may only qualify for a partial grant.
A number of families miss out on the free aid because they mistakenly believe that they won't get any. A policy analysis of aid applicants from the 2007-2008 school year estimates that 2.3 million students miss out on Pell awards because they didn't apply, reports former Finaid.org publisher Mark Kantrowitz. Among those students, approximately 1.1 million would qualify for full grants (see How to Get Grants for College).
Start with the FAFSA
Families learning how to pay for college can sidestep that fate by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, commonly known as the FAFSA, at www.fafsa.ed.gov. The FAFSA determines Pell eligibility based on a family's financial circumstance from the year before. If you've had a sudden monetary change -- such as a death, divorce or job loss -- or have had any major expenses that aren't included in the FAFSA analysis, such as high medical bills, tell your school's financial aid office immediately and ask for a financial aid review. Schools reserve the power to issue Pell Grants retroactively in rare, special circumstances.
1. 2011-2012 Federal Pell Grant Program End-of-Year Report, U.S. Department of Education, http://www2.ed.gov/finaid/prof/resources/data/pell-2011-12/pell-eoy-2011-12.pdf
2. Analysis of Why Some Students Do Not Apply for Financial Aid, April 28, 2009, Mark Kantrowitz, http://www.finaid.org/educators/20090427CharacteristicsOfNonApplicants.pdf
3. Basic Eligibility Criteria, U.S. Department of Education, Federal Student Aid, https://studentaid.ed.gov/eligibility/basic-criteria
4. Fafsa4caster tool, U.S. Department of Education, Federal Student Aid, https://fafsa.ed.gov/FAFSA/app/f4cForm?execution=e1s1
5. FAFSA: Free Application for Federal Student Aid, U.S. Department of Education, Federal Student Aid, https://fafsa.ed.gov/
6. Federal Pell Grant, U.S. Department of Education, Federal Student Aid, https://studentaid.ed.gov/types/grants-scholarships/pell