Comparing FAFSA and the Pell Grant

By Jennifer Calonia · July 26, 2023 · 8 minute read

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Comparing FAFSA and the Pell Grant

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) is the first step in the process of obtaining government-provided student aid while a Pell Grant is a type of federal aid.

Although the Pell Grant vs. FAFSA serve different functions, they both have a role under the broader federal student aid program. A FAFSA provides students access to the Pell Grant, and Pell Grant eligibility is determined by the FAFSA.

Key Points

•   FAFSA is an application for various federal aid programs, while a Pell Grant is a specific type of federal aid.

•   There are no income limits for FAFSA eligibility; Pell Grant eligibility is determined by the Student Aid Index.

•   FAFSA does not require demonstrating financial need; Pell Grants are awarded based on demonstrated financial need.

•   Both undergraduate and graduate students can apply for FAFSA; Pell Grants are generally available only to undergraduate students.

•   FAFSA provides access to multiple forms of financial aid, including Pell Grants, which are determined by the information provided in the FAFSA application.

What Is FAFSA?

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid is an all-in-one formal application to see if you’re eligible for federal financial aid. Through the FAFSA, students are able to apply for federal grants for college, like the Pell Grant, as well as scholarships, work-study opportunities, and federal student loans from the Department of Education.

As the name indicates, there is no cost to submit a FAFSA. Students will need to complete and submit a new FAFSA for every academic year they are requesting federal aid.

The FAFSA is generally available as early as October 1 for the upcoming academic year. The federal deadline to file the FAFSA is June 30 following the academic year. (Note that the form for the 2024-2025 academic year is delayed until December; find out more about the FAFSA delay here.) However, schools and states might have their own FAFSA deadlines to qualify for non-federal aid. Ask your school about its FAFSA deadline and be aware of your state’s deadline on

Recommended: FAFSA Guide

How FAFSA Works

Each FAFSA is applicable to the upcoming academic year. To receive federal financial aid for multiple years of college, as mentioned, you’ll need to complete the FAFSA each year by the deadline.

A Federal Student Aid (FSA) ID is required to manage your federal student aid account, which includes signing your FAFSA digitally. You can create your FSA ID on

Shortly after submitting the FAFSA, either digitally or a paper application, you’ll receive a Student Aid Report. This report is an overview of all the information you’ve provided on your FAFSA (e.g. your and your parents’ personal and financial information), and includes your Student Aid Index number (SAI; formerly called your Expected Family Contribution). At this stage, you’ll need to make any necessary corrections to your FAFSA by the deadline, which is for the 2022-23 academic year is September 10, 2023.

Your selected schools will then process your FAFSA and provide you with its financial aid offer. This notice will outline the types of aid you’re eligible for and the amount. It will also provide instructions on how to accept the aid offers you want. The accepted aid will then be sent automatically to your school.

What Is the Pell Grant?

A Pell Grant is a federal grant program that offers aid to students who show financial need on their FAFSA. Students are typically not required to repay money awarded in the form of the Pell Grant.

It’s generally available to undergraduate students who have not yet earned a bachelors, graduate, or professional degree. This grant program is not available to students who have been incarcerated in a federal or state institution.

When used for qualified educational expenses, Pell Grants are generally not considered taxable income.

How Pell Grants Work

The maximum Pell Grant award a student can receive may vary from year to year, and the amount you qualify to receive depends on your SAI. For the 2023-24 academic year, the maximum award is $7,395 and the SAI limit is $6,656 for Pell Grant eligibility.

Pell Grant awards are also limited to 12 semesters (or the equivalent of six years) per student. For example, if you received a Pell Grant award for four years of your undergraduate degree, and return to school to complete a graduate program, you’ll only have two years of lifetime eligibility left to receive Pell Grant funding.

In certain situations, students may be required to repay all or a portion of their Pell Grant. Some circumstances that may require repayment include a change in enrollment that may impact your eligibility such as withdrawing from school. If you are required to repay all or a portion of your Pell Grant, you will be notified by your school.

Pell Grant vs FAFSA

When comparing the differences and similarities between the federal pell grant vs. FAFSA, you’ll find they share some broad attributes, but have significant differences.

The first notable difference is that the FAFSA isn’t a type of financial aid; instead, it’s a general application for multiple federal aid programs. A Pell Grant, on the other hand, is a type of federal aid program that uses the FAFSA to determine if a student is eligible.

Neither the Pell Grant or FAFSA have defined income limits for eligibility. Anyone can submit a FAFSA, regardless of their household income. However, only students who demonstrate financial need are eligible for certain federal aid programs, like the Pell Grant.

The government uses students’ SAI — which is calculated based on a number of factors — to decide Pell Grant eligibility. For the 2023-24 academic year, the maximum SAI for Pell Grant eligibility is $6,656.

Also, both undergraduate- and graduate-level students can submit a FAFSA, but Pell Grants are typically restricted to undergraduate students only.


Pell Grant

Application for various types of federal aid programs. One grant option among a handful of federal grant programs.
No income limits for eligibility. Eligibility is determined based on a student’s SAI.
Financial need isn’t required to apply. Must demonstrate exceptional financial need.
Undergraduate and graduate students can apply. Generally offered to undergraduate students.

Which Forms of Financial Aid Should You Prioritize?

If your financial aid award includes a Pell Grant and other types of aid offers, carefully decide which aid you want to accept, and how much.

To avoid graduating school with excessive student debt, consider prioritizing financial aid as follows:

•   Scholarships and grants, like the Pell Grant, which don’t need to be repaid after you graduate.

•   Earned financial aid, like participating in work-study opportunities. You can also consider taking on a part-time job while you’re enrolled in school.

•   Borrowed financial aid, like federal student loans. Federal student loans offer low, fixed rates and protections, like income-driven repayment plans and extended deferment and forbearance. Prioritize federal loans before borrowing private student loans which don’t guarantee the same benefits.

Recommended: FAFSA Grants & Other Types of Financial Aid

What If You Don’t Qualify for Financial Aid?

Students who don’t qualify for federal financial aid still have options to help finance their college education.


Scholarships are a type of financial aid that doesn’t need to be repaid. They can be need- or merit-based, and are sponsored by nonprofit and private organizations, businesses, professional associations, and more.

Other Grants

Like scholarships, non-federal grants are provided to students, based on need or merit. They don’t have to be repaid after graduation making them a good financial aid choice.

Recommended: The Differences Between Grants, Scholarships, and Loans

Private Student Loans

Students can also apply for private student loans. This form of aid must be repaid in full, plus interest. You can find them from private financial institutions, like online lenders, banks, and credit unions. Your school or state might also offer private student loan options. One thing to know about private student loans, as mentioned is that they lack borrower benefits afforded to federal student loans, and are therefore generally only considered as a last resort option.

Recommended: Guide To Private Student Loans 

The Takeaway

As previously mentioned, the FAFSA is an application that students must fill out if they are interested in applying for any federal student aid including scholarships, work-study, grants, and federal student loans. A Pell grant is a type of aid, awarded to students who demonstrate exceptional financial need.

If you find that you’re not eligible for a Pell Grant, or qualify for financial aid, but not enough, SoFi’s private student loan could help. The online application process is fast and easy, and you can check your rate in just a few minutes. Plus, SoFi student loans have no fees and qualifying borrowers can secure competitive interest rates.

Find out if you pre-qualify and at what rates.


Can you get a Pell Grant without FAFSA?

No. Completing and submitting a FAFSA is a requirement to apply for a federal Pell Grant. The FAFSA is used by your school to determine your eligibility for Pell Grant aid, and the amount you can receive under this grant program.

Can you get a Pell Grant and other forms of financial aid?

Students who are eligible for a Pell Grant might also be offered other types of financial aid. If you’re eligible, you’ll receive the full Pell Grant amount you’re eligible for, regardless of other existing financial aid.

Do you have to repay a Pell Grant if you don’t graduate?

You might have to repay a portion of your “unearned” Pell Grant, if you withdraw from school during the same academic year. Your school will calculate how much of your Pell Grant award you’ve earned based on your scheduled attendance, and tell you the amount you owe.

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