The Federal Pell Grant program is the largest need-based student aid program. In 2011 alone, the U.S Dept of Education handed out 34.8 billion in Pell Grants.1

Pell Grants are only awarded to low- and middle-income undergraduate students who have not earned a bachelor’s or professional degree. For many students, these grants are the foundation of their financial aid package, to which other forms of aid are added.

Unlike student loan, these federal funded grants are free money that do not have to be repaid; making it one of the most preferred ways to get money for college.

Pell Grant Eligibility

The way the government and school determine your Pell Grant eligibility is from your EFC or Expected Family Contribution – a number that is given to you when you receive your Student Aid Report after you file the FAFSA.

Theoretically, the EFC is the sum of

  1. a percentage of net income (remaining income after subtracting allowances for taxes and basic living expenses), and
  2. a percentage of net assets (assets remaining after subtracting an asset protection allowance).

The EFC eligibility cutoff for 2011-2012 will be $5,273, up from $4,617. That said, if your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) exceeds $5,273, you become ineligible for any Pell Grant money.

Update: Due to a recent statutory change, the cutoff for 2012-2013 is 4995 which is less than the 5273 EFC maximum for the 2011-2012 Award Year.2

If your EFC falls below this threshold3, you’ll be eligible for a Federal Pell Grant assuming you meet all other eligibility requirements, including

  1. being a U.S. citizen or eligible non-citizen,
  2. not being in default on a federal student loan, and
  3. having a high school diploma, General Education Development (GED) equivalency or otherwise demonstrate his/her ability to benefit from the education or training offered.

In general, the amount of money you can receive through a Pell Grant is largely determined by

  1. your financial need – priority is given to those who demonstrate an “absolute financial need”
  2. Expected Family Contribution (EFC) and Cost of Attendance (COA)
  3. whether you’re enrolled on a full-time or a part-time basis
  4. whether you attend school for a full academic year or less
  5. how much money the program receives from the federal government

The maximum amount Pell Grant award for the 2012-2013 academic year is $5,550 with the minimum award of $555 which is 10% of the total maximum award.

Update: U.S. Senate has approved a bill that would increase the maximum Pell Grant by $85. Under the bill, the maximum Pell award would jump from $5,550 to $5,635 starting in the 2013-14 academic year.4

Although the Pell Grant does not require a minimum grade point average (GPA) or other academic requirements, fewer students are expected to qualify for a minimum Pell Grant under the new legislation which will require students to qualify for at least 10% of the maximum Pell Grant to get a grant. This means that those who were previously eligible for lesser sums of Pell Grant funds will no longer be eligible.

The 2012 Pell Grant change also cuts eligibility for the Pell Grant from 18 semesters to 12. Students will no longer be able to receive the Pell Grant beyond a six-year time frame.

Pell Grant Application

To apply for a Pell Grant, you must submit a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) online at or request a paper FAFSA from the Federal Student Aid Information Center (FSAIC)5.

The deadline for filling the application form for the 2011-2012 school year is June 30, 2012. But it’s always a good idea to check with your chosen college to find out its preferred filing deadline for FAFSA.

Students who are eligible for a Federal Pell Grant may also be eligible for a Federal Supplemental Education Opportunity Grant (FSEOG).

However, you may not receive Pell Grant funds from more than one college at a time. If in doubt, please check with your financial aid office.

  1. Source: Trends in Student Aid 2011 by College Board []
  2. Source: IFAP January 12, 2012 []
  3. The best case senario is to get a Zero EFC – the maximum adjusted gross income, or income earned from work, to qualify for the Automatic Zero EFC is $30,000 $23,000. []
  4. Source: More Pell Grants in School Year ‘13-‘14 []
  5. Just call 1-800-4-FED-AID and request a Federal Pell Grant application for the year you’re seeking financial assistance in; for example, 2011-2012. []

Last updated: August 15, 2012 by

Note: The information provided on this site is of a general nature and may not apply to your situation. Contact your financial aid administrator before acting on such information.