A Quick Guide to the Pell Grant

Plenty of people who dream of having a college degree to help improve their lives can’t afford the financial burden associated with pursuing higher education. As a result, their only way to leave behind a life of poverty or dissatisfaction in a current career field through additional studies is to earn a scholarship, take out loans, apply for one or more grants or rely on some permitted combination of these tactics. A Pell Grant is a federal option that students never have to repay. The idea behind this and other grants is that a student’s degree status typically leads to a high-paying job that eventually “repays” the subsidy by benefiting individuals and society overall. For example, low-income students who achieve college or trade degrees and certifications often earn more money, which means that they pay more taxes. They also support local and national economies through higher spending and typically use their educations in ways that better the lives of others.
Before you apply for a Pell Grant, make certain that you fulfill all of the following eligibility requirements:

Citizenship Status

Any student who applies for a Pell Grant must be a U.S. citizen or a national born in a territory overseen by the United States such as American Samoa, Swains Islands and the Northern Mariana Islands. A permanent resident who is not a citizen and certain other non-citizens can also apply. Every applicant must have a valid Social Security Number.

Financial Need

The Pell Grant is only available to students who show that they’re eligible for “need-based” financial aid, such as extremely low-income students. When a student applies for a Pell Grant and other types of federal financial aid, information that the student supplies, such as their income, household size and their assets, is used to determine if the applicant is eligible. For younger applicants who still live at home or count as dependents while living elsewhere because of their age and other factors, a financial aid representative considers the amount of money that an applicant and their family are capable of contributing to educational expenses. The total Expected Family Contribution is usually based in part on the incomes of the student’s parents and spouse, if applicable, and any financial obligations to other dependents, including siblings and grandparents. Several line items are not included in the calculation like retirement savings and primary home equity. To determine an applicant’s financial “need,” the financial aid representative then subtracts the EFC from the estimated Cost of Attendance.

Education Background and Plans

Applicants must have at least a “good” academic background and a high school diploma, the equivalent GED certificate or some other approved documentation that shows that they meet the basic educational requirements to enter a higher education program. Beyond one exception, applicants aren’t typically eligible for a Pell Grant if they previously earned a degree through an approved educational institution. They can only use the funds toward an undergraduate two-year associate’s degree or four-year bachelor’s degree program or certain professional licensure graduate programs. Those who are eligible must use the funds at only one of more than 5,000 approved postsecondary education colleges, universities, vocational schools and approved institutions. The cost of an education at the school of choice and part-time or full-time student status are also considered when determining if an applicant qualifies for a Pell Grant.


Applicants can’t have any outstanding federal loans or grant refunds. They also can’t receive the Pell Grant if they already received a Presidential scholarship or any category of full scholarship. Male applicants must be registered for Selective Service if they are 18 to 25 years of age. Otherwise, the lack of registration makes them ineligible for any federal student financial aid.

The Application

To apply for a Pell Grant, you merely need to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA form. You can contact the Federal Student Aid Center that manages the application process by using one of the methods outlined here and ask for a hardcopy of the form that you can complete and then mail back. You can download the form as an editable PDF and then mail it back. Lastly, you can complete the form entirely online via the Federal Student Aid’s FAFSA page.

You must file before the current year application deadline so that any Pell Grant or other financial assistance monies arrive on time before the start of your next semester. Since the FAFSA requires current income information, you and your parents or spouse, if applicable, must also have previous year taxes completed before you file. To make filling out the application an easier process, locate all necessary tax returns, bank statements, W-2 forms and current pay stubs, your driver’s license and Social Security card and a list of countable assets.

For more information about FAFSA and completing the form, visit the FAFSA®: Applying for Aid page. For more information about applying for a Pell Grant, check out the Federal Student Aid’s Federal Pell Grants page. You can also find out even more information about these and other types of financial aid by reviewing the current year Federal Student Aid Handbook as a downloadable PDF file.