Pell Grants are one of the largest federal gift aid programs, with over $28 billion going to students with high financial need in the 2017-2018 school year.  While that is certainly a lot of money, the program is in fact fairly limited.

For a full-time student to be eligible for the current school year, a family’s EFC must be below $5,487. (A Pell Grant rule of thumb: if you’re eligible for free and reduced lunch, you are likely eligible for a Pell Grant, too.) Part-time enrolled students are also eligible; however, both the EFC cap and the grant amounts are lower. The maximum grant of $6,095 is only available to full-time students with a $0 EFC; the grant is reduced as EFC increases. The average award is considerably lower: $3,700.

The Pell Grant has some other limitations: it’s only available to undergraduates, except for some graduate students working toward a teaching credential. And there’s a lifetime cap on Pell Grant awards, equivalent to roughly 6 years of study.

The Pell Grant goes a long way towards funding education at a community college, and less far at four-year institutions. However, many such institutions are actively seeking Pell Grant recipients, with aid policies that make them whole through institutional grants.

If you are eligible for a Pell Grant, here are a few things you should know:

  • Your eligibility is recalculated annually, so you’ll need to file a FAFSA every year you’re in school (which you should be doing anyway).
  • Pell Grants are now available year-round, which can be a boon for students taking courses over the summer.
  • Your grant money goes directly to the school to cover tuition, fees, housing, etc.; any leftover may be distributed directly to the student for costs such as books. Students who leave school during the term are generally required to repay any funds that were disbursed, which needless to say can create a significant hardship. Otherwise, Pell Grants are gift money that doesn’t need to be repaid.