A Complete Guide to Pell Grants

Written by: Reyna Gobel
Updated: 9/07/21

Pell Grants are known for being the main grant awarded by the federal government that can help with paying for college. While it’s considered a grant for low-income students, many middle class families also qualify. 

By the end of this article, you’ll learn how the Pell Grant works and about other grants offered by states and universities. These other grants may be available whether or not families qualify for Pell Grants. 

Here’s what you need to know:

How to Apply for Pell Grants

Families fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form (FAFSA) form so the department of education has the information needed to evaluate financial need. The number that results is called the expected family contribution (EFC), which basically means the amount a family could potentially contribute toward the student’s cost of attendance in college. It doesn’t necessarily mean the family will contribute that amount.

How Eligibility is Determined

The EFC is compared with the cost of attendance at the college the student selects, and they’ll get less as part-time students. Whether they attend for the full academic year is also a consideration for how much is awarded, but it isn’t considered for overall eligibility. Pell Grants are only awarded for first-time degree recipients above an associates degree with the exception of students in a second degree program to become teachers.

How Much You Can Receive

A student can receive up to $6,195 in an academic year. Because cost of attendance is a factor, the same student may qualify for $500 at a local community college or $5,000 at Harvard. Families can get a guesstimate of what they might receive by using the FAFSA4caster, the department of education’s tool for estimating student aid before filling out the FAFSA form. The other option is to use net price calculators. The bonus to net price calculators is it guesstimates other forms of financial aid in the form of grants, scholarships, and student loans.

Getting Pell Grants in Future Years

The Pell Grant’s academic requirements are based on the school you are attending. Check with college financial aid offices to determine what minimum GPA and number of credits students need to maintain academic eligibility. Generally, a student would have to maintain at least 12 credits per semester for full-time eligibility or 6 credits if attending part-time. 

GPA requirements vary by school. No school will likely accept below a 2.0 for a student to keep receiving financial aid. Probation periods may be offered if the credits or GPA falls below the minimum standard in a semester.

What Other Grants Are Possible

The Pell Grant is just one form of financial aid available to students. Both universities and states offer grants in addition to the Pell Grant and may have much wider ranging income eligibility criteria. 

University grants may also be merit based. Often, families hear about university grants under the title of endowment money. Some of these funds may also be what schools use when negotiating with high achieving students choosing among multiple schools.

However, the available of university and state grants often depend on the depth state and individual college budgets. Thus, students need to apply as early as possible for financial aid via the FAFSA to get as much aid as possible. High achieving students should also negotiate with the financial aid office if multiple schools are competing for them.

Note: There isn’t a cap on how many students can receive Pell Grants in an academic year. If the student applies in October or May the year before they attend college, they’d still get the same amount in Pell Grants.

5 Key Takeaways:

  • The Pell Grant is based on financial need, but the exact income needed varies. Many middle class families still qualify.
  • The maximum Pell Grant is $6,195. Students who qualify may be awarded anywhere from $100 to $6,195.
  • University and state grants cast a wider net for income eligibility but can run out when their budgets run out. Apply early.
  • There is no limit to the number of students that can receive Pell Grants in a given year.
  • You can guesstimate Pell Grant awards with FAFSA4caster and net price calculators.


Guest post by Reyna Gobel.