The Pell Grant is a form of federal aid designed to assist low-income students. Learn how to apply for the award, how much you can earn, and who is eligible.

What Is the Pell Grant?


  • As federal student aid, the Pell Grant provides a maximum of $6,345 for 2020-21.
  • Pell Grant eligibility is determined by financial need, degree type, and enrollment status.
  • To apply for the Pell Grant, students can complete the FAFSA as early as October 1.

Many students seek out financial aid in the form of scholarships, grants, and even loans to help them pay for the high cost of a college education. During the 2017-18 academic year, the office of Federal Student Aid reported that nearly 19 million candidates submitted the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

The FAFSA is used to award students institutional scholarships and government aid, including the Federal Pell Grant — an income-based award for undergraduates with exceptional financial need.

This guide provides an overview of the Pell Grant, such as information on eligibility and the maximum award amount. You'll also learn how to apply for a Pell Grant.

What Is a Pell Grant?

Like a scholarship, the Federal Pell Grant gives students money for college that does not need to be repaid. The grant is named after Rhode Island Senator Claiborne Pell, who worked with education policy expert Lois Rice in 1972 to develop the award as part of a reform package for the 1965 Higher Education Act.

The Pell Grant is considered a core part of a student’s FAFSA package.

Many university administrators today regard the Pell Grant as a core part of a student's FAFSA package. Originally created to help low- and middle-income people pursue higher education, Pell Grant eligibility centers on an applicant's financial need.

At the time of its implementation, the Pell Grant — and more or less all forms of federal student aid — was accessible to every American. But program changes now prohibit incarcerated and civilly committed individuals from receiving the award.

How Much Is a Pell Grant?

According to the office of Federal Student Aid, the maximum Pell Grant amount for the 2020-21 award year — which spans July 1, 2020, to June 30, 2021 — is $6,345. Both your expected family contribution (EFC) and your college's cost of attendance (COA) affect how much federal funding you can receive.

The maximum Pell Grant amount for the 2020-21 award year is $6,345.

Additional factors include the total time you plan to spend in school and your enrollment status as a part- or full-time student.

Students may be able to earn up to 150% of the maximum Pell Grant amount by enrolling in a summer or winter session in addition to the traditional fall and spring terms.

The dependents of military personnel and public safety officers also qualify for extra funding if their parent or guardian died while on duty. In this case, the candidate must be less than 24 years old and attending college at least part time.

Who Is Eligible for a Pell Grant?

Your college's financial aid department makes calculations to determine your FAFSA eligibility. Specifically, administrators will subtract your EFC from the COA, using the result to determine how much need-based aid — mostly grants and work-study funds — you can receive.

This number is then subtracted from the school's COA to determine your non-need-based aid, which includes most federal loans.

Below are the three major Pell Grant requirements:

Financial Need

How much your family earns directly impacts your Pell Grant eligibility. If your family makes more than $60,000 annually, you will likely be ineligible for this award. If your EFC sits below $26,000, however, you'll most likely get the full Pell Grant amount for that year.

Degree Type

The Federal Pell Grant primarily supports undergraduate students who do not already possess a bachelor's, graduate, or professional degree. Under certain conditions, educators enrolled in a postbaccalaureate teacher certification program may apply for the award. Lifetime restrictions mean that you can access Pell Grant funding for a total of six years, or 12 semesters.

Academic Performance

Students must renew the FAFSA annually. To continue receiving financial aid, you need to demonstrate satisfactory progress toward your degree or certificate. The federal government requires you to repay the Pell Grant amount for the award year if you drop out of school.

How to Apply for a Pell Grant

The office of Federal Student Aid accepts Pell Grant submissions starting October 1 (for aid the following academic year), with varying deadlines based on the student's state and institution.

Make sure to apply for aid as soon as possible, since some awards, including work-study funds, deplete on a first-come, first-served basis. Fortunately, the Pell Grant is portable, meaning a student's eligibility and award amount typically remain the same for all 6,500 colleges and universities that accept the FAFSA.

The Pell Grant is portable, meaning a student’s eligibility and award amount typically remain the same for all colleges.

The Pell Grant application is part of the general FAFSA process. You must create a FAFSA ID and gather all the necessary documents, such as your proof of citizenship or eligible non-citizenship; federal tax returns; and reports of cash, bank account totals, and investments.

Next, read the directions carefully and fill out all required information in each FAFSA section before signing and submitting your application.

Upon completing the FAFSA, you'll receive an email confirmation with instructions on how to check your application status. Within three weeks, you'll get an official student aid report that details the specific awards you may accept or reject.

For more information on how to secure a Pell Grant, consult the office of Federal Student Aid.

Additional Financial Aid Resources

BestColleges Guide to the FAFSA

Learn everything there is to know about the FAFSA and how to fill it out.

BestColleges Grants and Scholarships Guide

Get a rundown of the different types of grants and scholarships you can apply for.

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