How to Apply for a Pell Grant
For the past 10 years, the cost of a baccalaureate education has been on the rise—and so has the average student loan debt. The Wall Street Journal reports that in 2014, the average college student graduated with a debt load of approximately $33,000, compared with $8,000 in 1993 and $18,000 in 2004.
When you’re planning your strategy to fund your education, it’s important to consider “free” financial aid as well as student loans. In order to minimize your student loan debt, make it a priority to apply for grants, scholarships, and other types of aid that do not have to be repaid. The Federal Pell Grant, issued by the U.S. Department of Education, does not require repayment.
According to the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, the Federal Pell Grant program awarded over $33 billion in 2011 to 2012, and close to 10 million undergraduates received awards. But the grant is highly competitive, and only those who meet the criteria for financial need are eligible.
Pell Grants are usually awarded to undergraduate students who are working towards their first bachelor’s degree or professional degree. Pell Grants are not available to graduate students. However, you may qualify for a Pell Grant if you already have a degree and you are working on a teacher certification program. Other factors that affect your eligibility include:
- Your income and financial obligations: Pell Grants are awarded to students who can demonstrate strong financial need. When you apply for federal financial aid, your family’s income and assets as well as their financial obligations (such as housing, utilities, child care, and transportation) will be taken into consideration to determine whether you qualify for Pell Grants and other need-based funds.
- Your school’s participation: The postsecondary school you attend must participate in the Pell Grant program. Undergraduate programs, professional programs, and vocational schools can participate. To find out whether Pell Grants are offered at your school, contact the financial aid office.
- Your citizenship: You must be a U.S. citizen or an eligible non-citizen (a permanent resident with a green card) to qualify for federal financial aid, including Pell Grants.
- Your legal status: Individuals who are incarcerated in a penal institution or who have been convicted of certain drug-related or sexual offenses may not be eligible for a Pell Grant.
- Your academic progress: Once you’ve been awarded a Pell Grant, you must maintain certain academic standards in order to continue receiving the award each year. Your school is responsible for determining satisfactory academic progress, which usually includes factors such as attendance, course completion, and grade point average (GPA).
- Special circumstances: Students with a parent who was killed in military duty in Iraq or Afghanistan, or students with intellectual disabilities, may qualify for special Pell Grant funding.
How Much Money Could I Receive?
The maximum award of a Pell Grant varies from one academic year to the next. For the 2013-2014 academic year, for example, the most money you could receive from a Pell Grant was $5,645. That amount will increase to $5,775 for the 2015-2016 academic year. Not all students receive the maximum award. The amount you receive will depend on several factors:
- The cost of your tuition and other expenses
- Your financial need, as determined by your Estimated Family Contribution (EFC)
- Whether you plan to attend school for a full academic year
- Whether you’ll be attending part-time or full-time
As of 2012, students can receive Pell Grants for no more than 12 semesters. In most cases, this totals about six years.
How Do I Apply?
There is no specific application for a Pell Grant. You will be considered for this award when you complete the Free Application for Federal Financial Aid (FAFSA). You can fill out the FAFSA in three different ways:
- By applying online through the U.S. Department of Education’s website, FederalStudentAid
- By completing a PDF version of the FAFSA, which must be printed and mailed
- By filling out a paper version of the FAFSA and submitting it by mail
Paper applications are available by calling the U.S. Department of Education’s toll-free number for federal financial aid. However, the Department of Education recommends that you complete the application online through its website.
Do I Need to Apply Every Year?
Pell Grants are not renewed automatically. In order to keep receiving the grant, you must fill out the FAFSA for each year that you need to apply. To maintain your eligibility and continue to receive funding, you must continue to meet requirements such as:
- Maintaining satisfactory academic progress, as defined by your school
- Meeting the required standards for financial need
- Maintaining your citizenship status
- Avoiding legal problems or arrest
- Remaining in good standing with any federal student loans
Maintaining an online profile with the U.S. Department of Education makes it easy to submit your FAFSA online in a timely manner. All you need to do is update your existing application by the required deadline, and you’ll be considered for Pell Grants and other federal financial aid.
How Will I Receive the Money?
Once you’ve received your award letter, your funds will be disbursed by your school. Your Pell Grant money will be used to cover expenses like tuition, registration fees, lab fees, and room and board. Any funds left over will be issued to you. Because grant money doesn’t have to be repaid, it can be tempting to treat any leftover money as disposable income. However, to stay within your budget and avoid unnecessary debt, these funds should be applied to college-related expenses like supplies, a computer, and transportation.
What Are My Other Options?
There are many other grants, scholarships, and student loan programs available to help you finance your education. In addition to federal awards, your state may sponsor grant or scholarship programs based on academic merit and/or financial need. In addition, professional organizations, religious organizations, and non-profit institutions offer awards. The time you spend researching and applying for these funds can really pay off when it comes to reducing your student loan debt and reaching your educational goals.