Federal Pell Grant

The Federal Pell Grant is the largest need-based college grant program, awarding more than $30 billion in grants each year to more than 9 million students. Grants are a form of gift aid, money that does not have to be repaid.

The maximum Federal Pell Grant was $5,645 in the 2013-2014 academic year and $5,730 in 2014-2015. The maximum Federal Pell Grant is expected to increase to $5,775 in 2015-2016.

More than 95 percent (95.9%) of Federal Pell Grant recipients in 2011-2012 had family adjusted gross income (AGI) under $60,000. Less than one percent of Federal Pell Grant recipients had family AGI of $100,000 or more.

Federal Pell Grants are available at any college or university that is eligible for Title IV federal student aid.

Pell Grant Eligibility

To be eligible for a Federal Pell Grant:

  • The student must demonstrate financial need, as determined by the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
  • The student must be enrolled in an undergraduate degree or certificate program or in a teacher certification program. Graduate and professional students are not eligible for the Federal Pell Grant program.
  • The student cannot have already received a Bachelor's degree or first professional degree. Associate's degree and certificate recipients remain eligible until they receive a Bachelor's degree or professional degree. There is an exception for students enrolled in post-baccalaureate teacher certification and licensing programs, who remain eligible for the Federal Pell Grant. (Students who are double-majoring and will receive two Bachelor's degrees should be careful to complete the requirements for both degrees at the same time. The student will lose eligibility for the Federal Pell Grant as soon as he or she finishes the requirements for one of the Bachelor's degrees.)
  • Students who are incarcerated in a federal or state penal institution are ineligible for the Federal Pell Grant, as are students who are subject to an involuntary civil commitment after incarceration for sexual offenses. The loss of eligibility lasts for the duration of the incarceration or civil commitment. Also, students who have been convicted for the sale or possession of illegal drugs while receiving federal student aid may have their eligibility for all federal student aid, including the Federal Pell Grant, suspended or terminated.

There is a lifetime eligibility cap of the equivalent of 6 years of full-time enrollment. This cap was enacted by the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2012, effective July 1, 2012. Students may choose to forgo receiving the Federal Pell Grant one academic term in order to preserve eligibility for future academic terms. For example, a student who is eligible for a small Federal Pell Grant but who expects to qualify for a larger grant in the future might want to avoid using up part of his/her lifetime eligibility limit. The lifetime eligibility limit does not consider the amount of the grants, just the number of full-time equivalent academic terms of grants received.

Students are not required to be enrolled on at least a half-time basis to receive a Federal Pell Grant. (The main exception is students enrolled in post-baccalaureate teacher certification and licensing programs, where at least half-time enrollment is required to receive a Federal Pell Grant.) The amount of the grant, however, is prorated by the student's enrollment status.

The student must also satisfy the other requirements for federal student aid eligibility.

Failure to Apply

An estimated 2.0 million students would have qualified for a Federal Pell Grant in 2011-2012, but did not file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Of these, 1.3 million would have qualified for a full Federal Pell Grant.

Of the students who would have qualified for a Federal Pell Grant, 46.7% thought they were ineligible, 37.5% said that they had no need, 34.1% did not want to take on the debt, 13.6% had no information on how to apply and 9.4% said that the forms were too much work. These figures sum to more than 100% because each student may have offered more than one reason for not filing the FAFSA. After eliminating duplicates, the first three reasons together account for 89% of non-applicants and all five reasons for 91% of non-applicants.

How to Apply

To apply for the Federal Pell Grant, a student must file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) at www.fafsa.ed.gov. The FAFSA becomes available starting January 1 of each year. Students must re-apply each year for the grant by submitting a Renewal FAFSA.

How Much is Awarded

The amount of a student's Federal Pell Grant is based on the student's expected family contribution (EFC). The EFC eligibility cutoff is currently set at 90 percent of the maximum Federal Pell Grant, rounded up to the nearest whole number. The minimum Federal Pell Grant is 10 percent of the maximum Federal Pell Grant. The maximum Federal Pell Grant is $5,645 in the 2013-2014 award year. The award amount is prorated by enrollment status.

The award amount is split into at least two substantially equal disbursements, typically disbursed at the beginning of each academic term.

Note: Students whose parent or guardian died while serving as a member of the U.S. Armed Forces in Afghanistan or Iraq after September 11, 2001, are eligible to receive the maximum Federal Pell Grant. Recipients must be eligible to receive a Federal Pell Grant and, at the time of the parent's death, either have been under age 24 or enrolled in college. These students are treated as though they have a zero EFC for all federal student aid, including the Federal Pell Grant. The grant is prorated for less than full-time enrollment. If the student's EFC is too high to qualify for a Federal Pell Grant but otherwise satisfies the other requirements for a Federal Pell Grant, the student may be eligible for an Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grant with an award amount equal to the maximum Federal Pell Grant. Due to federal budget sequestration, the grants may be reduced by 10 percent for grants first disbursed on or after March 2, 2013.

Historical Maximum Federal Pell Grant

Maximum Pell Grant Amount Trend Line Chart

Award Year Maximum Pell Grant Award Year Maximum Pell Grant Award Year  Maximum Pell Grant 
1973-1974 $452 1988-1989 $2,200 2003-2004 $4,050
1974-1975 $1,050 1989-1990 $2,300 2004-2005 $4,050
1975-1976 $1,400 1990-1991 $2,300 2005-2006 $4,050
1976-1977 $1,400 1991-1992 $2,400 2006-2007 $4,050
1977-1978 $1,400 1992-1993 $2,400 2007-2008 $4,310
1978-1979 $1,600 1993-1994 $2,300 2008-2009 $4,731
1979-1980 $1,800 1994-1995 $2,300 2009-2010 $5,350
1980-1981 $1,750 1995-1996 $2,340 2010-2011 $5,550
1981-1982 $1,650 1996-1997 $2,470 2011-2012 $5,550
1982-1983 $1,800 1997-1998 $2,700 2012-2013 $5,550
1983-1984 $1,800 1998-1999 $3,000 2013-2014 $5,645
1984-1985 $1,900 1999-2000
$3,125 2014-2015 $5,730
1985-1986 $2,100 2000-2001 $3,300 2015-2016 $5,775
1986-1987 $2,100 2001-2002 $3,750 2016-2017 $5,875
1987-1988 $2,100 2002-2003 $4,000    

Figures in italics are projected.