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Receiving a Pell Grant can be life changing. Students from lower-income families who may otherwise be forced to take on a massive student loan balance can use their Pell Grant—which doesn’t have to be repaid—to graduate with a more manageable amount of debt.
If you qualify for a Pell Grant, see how much money you can expect to receive over the course of your time in school and why it’s important to track your grant awards.
Pell Grant Basics
The Pell Grant is a need-based federal grant that is offered to students who qualify based on their family’s household income. Unlike student loans, Pell Grants do not have to be repaid.
Pell Grants can be used at community colleges, technical schools and undergraduate degree programs, and are only available to students who do not already have an undergraduate degree. Pell Grants are not available for graduate or professional programs.
To qualify for a Pell Grant, students must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) by the deadline. The FAFSA is also used to determine which federal student loans and other financial aid you’re eligible for.
The FAFSA asks questions about your family’s income and assets to determine your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). If your EFC is below a certain threshold, you could qualify for the Pell Grant.
The exact amount you receive with a Pell Grant can change yearly. For the 2021-22 school year, the maximum award is $6,495. The amount you receive will depend on a variety of factors, including your EFC, your school’s cost of attendance and whether you’re a full-time or part-time student.
Students must complete the FAFSA every year to remain eligible. If their family’s financial situation changes, they may receive more or less Pell Grant funding. For example, if one of your parents loses their job, you may qualify for a larger Pell Grant. If your parent receives a large raise, you may no longer qualify for the Pell Grant.
If you receive a Pell Grant that’s more than your school’s tuition and fees, the college will distribute any leftover funds to you directly. You can use that money for qualified educational expenses, like textbooks or software for your laptop. If you use it for unqualified expenses, you’ll have to report the spent amount as income on your taxes.
What Is the Lifetime Limit for a Pell Grant?
The total award amount you receive is limited to the equivalent of six years or 12 semesters of schooling; the lifetime limit established for the federal Pell Grant program is measured at 600%. But it’s possible to use up all your funding before the six-year mark.
You may receive more or less than your scheduled award in some years. For example, students may receive 150% of their Pell Grant award for the school year if they take fall, spring and summer classes, or 50% if they only take classes for one semester.
How to Calculate Your Pell Grant Usage
Because the amount of your scheduled award can change each year, it’s important to track how much you’ve used against your lifetime limit. View your current Pell Grant usage by logging on to your official federal financial aid account. You’ll need your FSA ID, email address or mobile phone number, along with your password.
Once you’re logged in, navigate to the “My Aid” section, which will show your lifetime limit. If the percentage is below 600%, then you still have remaining funds.
If the percentage is between 500% and 600%, you still have funds remaining but you won’t receive 100% of your award next year. For example, let’s say you qualify for $4,000 as your annual Pell Grant award next year. But if your current Pell Grant usage is 525%, then you’ll only receive 75% of your annual award, or $3,000.
What to Know About Reaching Your Pell Grant Lifetime Limit
Once you reach the federal Pell Grant lifetime limit, you are unable to receive more Pell Grant funding. But that limit has no bearing on other types of financial aid. You may still be eligible for:
- Federal student loans
- Federal work-study program
- State or institutional grants
Federal student loans have a lifetime limit of $31,000 for dependent undergraduates and $57,500 for independent undergrads. The total limit for graduate and professional students is $138,500.
You can take out private student loans once you reach those limits, which may have higher loan amounts. If you’re an undergraduate, your parents could also apply for federal Parent PLUS loans, where the limit is the cost of attendance minus any other financial aid.
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