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Pell Grant Eligibility: What You Need to Finance Your Education

Pell Grant Eligibility: What You Need to Finance Your Education
Rebecca Safier

Rebecca Safier

Updated March 29, 2022
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Editor’s note: Lantern by SoFi seeks to provide content that is objective, independent and accurate. Writers are separate from our business operation and do not receive direct compensation from advertisers or partners. Read more about our Editorial Guidelines and How We Make Money.
The Pell Grant is a federal grant provided by the Department of Education for students with exceptional financial need. Your Pell Grant eligibility is not based on grades and extracurriculars but on your financial need as determined by the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®). Unlike student loans, you typically don’t need to pay back the Pell Grant, making it a highly desirable form of financial aid. 

What Is the Pell Grant? 

The Pell Grant is a form of needs-based financial aid for college students. It’s mainly reserved for undergraduates, though students in post-baccalaureate teacher certification programs might also qualify. You’ll need to submit the FAFSA to be eligible, but there’s technically no income cutoff. Instead, your Pell Grant eligibility depends on your Expected Family Contribution (EFC), the school’s cost of attendance, and other factors. Note that EFC will be renamed Student Aid Index starting in 2023. The Pell Grant is considered to be a portable award, meaning you can receive it from any participating school as long as the Department of Education deems you eligible. The amount of the Pell Grant varies from year to year. For the 2022-23 year, the maximum amount a student could receive was $6,495. Students could receive equal to or less than that amount depending on their financial need.  

How to Apply for the Pell Grant 

To be eligible for the Pell Grant, students must complete the FAFSA application. You don’t need to submit a separate application specifically for the Pell Grant. You can complete the FAFSA online, via mobile app, or on paper. This form asks for personal details, such as your address and Social Security number or Alien Registration number.You’ll also provide information on your income, assets, and tax returns. Most students under the age of 24 are considered dependent, meaning their parents will provide this information, too. The FAFSA is not only required to get a Pell Grant, but it also unlocks the door to other types of federal financial aid, such as subsidized and unsubsidized student loans. Once your FAFSA has been processed, you can log into your Federal Student Aid account to see your Student Aid Report. At this point, you and any schools you indicated on the form should see if you’re eligible for a Pell Grant award. 

What Determines How Much the Grant Offers? 

While the maximum Pell Grant award was $6,495 for the 2022-23 school year, some students received a smaller amount. There are a few factors that influence your Pell Grant award amount, such as your family’s EFC and school’s cost of attendance. 

Your Family’s Expected Contribution 

Your eligibility for the Pell Grant is largely determined by your Expected Family Contribution, an index number that results from the information you provide on the FAFSA. It’s determined by a formula that takes into account your family’s taxed and untaxed income and assets, as well as any benefits such as unemployment or Social Security. Students with a low EFC are considered to have greater financial need and, therefore, may be eligible for a higher Pell Grant amount. If your family’s income was less than $26,000 in the 2020-21 year, your EFC was set at $0. In this situation, you could be eligible for the full Pell Grant award as long as your school’s cost of attendance was at least that amount. 

The Price of Admission

Your Pell Grant eligibility is not your EFC alone; it also takes your school’s cost of attendance into account. Cost of attendance includes the cost of tuition and fees, as well as room and board, books, supplies, and other expenses that come with attending school. Your Pell Grant award might slightly exceed the cost of attendance of your school. If your school costs a total of $5,000 per year and your EFC was zero, for example, your maximum Pell Grant could be $5,050. 

Your Enrollment Status (Full-Time or Part-Time) 

Your enrollment status also plays a part in Pell Grant requirements. Students who are enrolled full-time can qualify for the largest award, but that amount decreases if you’re enrolled three-quarter-time, half-time, or less than half-time. You need to stay on top of your credit hours.It’s also possible to receive 150% of your maximum award amount if you attend school over the summer. If you’re enrolled full-time in the fall and spring and add a summer semester, you could get additional Pell Grant funding in what’s sometimes referred to as a “year-round Pell.”

Your Intention to Attend School for the Entire Academic Year or a Shorter Period 

Finally, the amount of time you’re enrolled in school can impact your Pell Grant award amount. While students who attend for the entire academic year can receive the full amount for which they’re eligible, students who attend for a shorter period will likely see their Pell Grant reduced. What’s more, students who withdraw from school early might have to pay back part or all of their Pell Grant if they received an award for a semester in which they’re no longer enrolled. 

Eligibility for Pell Grant 

Pell Grant eligibility requirements are primarily based on financial need, but there are some other criteria to be aware of. 

Age and Time 

While there’s no age limit for the Pell Grant, it’s primarily awarded to undergraduate students who have not received an advanced degree yet. Students of post-baccalaureate teacher certification programs can also be eligible. Some of the students are also pursuing work-study.You can also only receive a Pell Grant for a total of 12 academic terms, which is typically equal to six school years. If you’re in school for longer, you’ll no longer qualify for Pell Grant funding. 

Income Limit 

There’s no specific income limit to receive a Pell Grant, but it’s reserved for students with financial need. Your eligibility is based on a formula that takes your family’s income, school’s cost of attendance, and other factors into account. As mentioned, however, families with an annual income of $26,000 or lower in the 2020-21 year were considered to have an EFC of $0. If your family’s income falls below this threshold, you’ll likely qualify for a Pell Grant to help pay for school. 

Parent or Guardian Demise in Iraq and Afghanistan After 9/11 

Students who lost a parent or guardian who was in active duty might be eligible for additional Pell Grant funds. This applies to students whose parent or guardian was, 
  • A member of the U.S. armed forces and died during military service in Iraq or Afghanistan after 9/11, or 
  • A public safety officer who died during active service in the line of duty 
If the student was less than 24 and enrolled in college or career school at least part-time at the time of their parent’s or guardian’s death, they could have their Pell Grant eligibility recalculated as if their EFC were zero. 

Student Loan Options With Lantern 

While a Pell Grant can help cover college costs, you might still have a gap in funding and need to consider other options, including federal loans. Later, borrowers can consider refinancing their federal loans to get lower interest. There can be benefits to refinancing student loans. By doing so, however, you will lose eligibility for federal loan forgiveness. Compare student loan refinance options with Lantern at SoFi.
Photo credit: iStock/Prostock-StudioSOLC0122064

Frequently Asked Questions

What is your Expected Family Contribution?
How will I get paid the Pell Grant?
What must I do to maintain the Pell Grant?

About the Author

Rebecca Safier

Rebecca Safier

Rebecca Safier has nearly a decade of experience writing about personal finance. Formerly a senior writer with LendingTree and Student Loan Hero, she specializes in student loans, financial aid, and personal loans. She is certified as a student loan counselor with the National Association of Certified Credit Counselors (NACCC).
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