What Is a Pell Grant?

By Kayla McCormack · January 24, 2024 · 10 minute read

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What Is a Pell Grant?

A Pell Grant is a type of federal funding that’s awarded to eligible undergraduate students who have exceptional financial need, and is provided to help pay for their education. In general, unlike a loan, Pell Grants usually don’t need to be repaid. The maximum amount that you can receive varies each year, with the 2023-24 school year’s maximum being $7,395.00.

Factors that play a role into what you might receive include your Expected Family Contribution (or EFC), the cost of attending your specific school for your specific program, whether you’ll be attending full-time or part-time, and whether you intend to attend school for the entire academic year.

Applying for a Pell Grant

If you believe you might qualify for the Pell Grant, then step one is the same as for every type of federal funding for students — to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®). Note that you’ll need to fill out this form every year that you’re attending school to apply for federal aid, including but not limited to the Pell Grant.

If you receive Pell Grant funding, then your school can apply these funds to your school costs or pay you — or use a combination of these two methods.

Pell Grant Eligibility Requirements

In order to qualify for a Pell Grant, you’ll need to meet the grant’s eligibility requirements.


Pell Grants are awarded to individuals who exhibit exceptional financial need. There are no official income limits for the Pell Grant. Instead, award amounts are determined by your Expected Family Contribution, the program cost of attendance, and your status as a full- or part-time student.

Academic Achievement

Renewal of the Pell Grant each year is based on the student making satisfactory academic progress. The specific policy for academic progress will be outlined by your school, but it generally includes things like a minimum GPA and the number of class credits you need to complete in order to make progress toward your degree.

Completing FAFSA

To apply for the Pell Grant, you’ll need to fill out the FAFSA. In order to continue receiving the Pell Grant, you’ll need to fill out the FAFSA each year you are enrolled in school.

Recommended: FAFSA Guide

Being an Undergraduate Student

Pell Grants are generally only awarded to undergraduate students. Though, there may be some exceptions for students enrolled in post-baccalaureate teacher certification programs.

Maintaining Eligibility for a Pell Grant

To maintain your eligibility for a Pell Grant, you’ll need to stay enrolled in your undergraduate program. Additional Pell Grant requirements, among others, include that you need to either be a U.S. citizen or an eligible non-citizen.

You’ll also need to have a valid Social Security number and must be enrolled or accepted for enrollment in an eligible educational program.

This program is available to qualifying students for 12 semesters.

💡 Quick Tip: Fund your education with a low-rate, no-fee SoFi private student loan that covers all school-certified costs.

Loans vs Scholarships vs Grants

Before taking a deeper dive into federal Pell Grant eligibility, it can help to delve into the differences between student loans, scholarships, and grants.

Recommended: The Differences Between Grants, Scholarships, and Loans

Student Loans

Student loans are borrowed funds that need to be repaid, typically with interest. There are both federal student loans that the government offers, and private ones offered by financial institutions.

Federal Student Loans

Federal student loans are offered to students based on data included in the FAFSA. Some federal student loans are unsubsidized, while others are subsidized. With an unsubsidized loan, the interest begins accumulating as soon as funds are dispersed. So, while you’re in school, even if you aren’t making payments yet, interest is accruing.

With a subsidized loan, though, the government will pay your interest until you graduate or drop below half-time status.

You usually need to start paying back federal loans after the grace period, which is six months after you graduate or your enrollment drops below half-time.

Private Student Loans

Private student loans are usually used after federal student loan options have been exhausted. They may have a fixed or variable interest rate, and do not come with the same borrower protections as federal student loans. Different lenders may have different terms and rates and they’ll likely evaluate a potential borrower’s credit score and history, among other factors, to make their lending decision.

Recommended: Private vs Federal Student Loans


There are thousands of scholarships available to help students finance their college education. Some are based on financial need, others on merit, and sometimes both. The beauty of scholarships is that, unlike loans, they usually don’t need to be repaid. It can take some time to find the right scholarships for your situation.

Your high school counselor or college advisor may be able to help, and there are scholarship databases that you can search. Scholarships come with different requirements and different deadlines, so it typically helps to start early.


Like scholarships, grants typically don’t need to be paid back. They can be obtained from a variety of sources, including state governments, the federal government, your university, and private/non-profit organizations.

To receive a grant, you often need to meet financial criteria, and this kind of funding is usually based on financial need. And, this brings us full circle to a popular type of grant for college students today: the federal Pell Grant.

How Do Pell Grants Work?

To become eligible, you must fill out the FAFSA. If it’s determined you’re an undergraduate student with exceptional financial need — and you haven’t yet earned a bachelor’s degree (or a graduate or professional one) — then you may qualify for this grant funding.

Because each school that participates in the federal Pell Grant program receives enough funding annually to pay the full amount of Pell Grants to eligible students, if you’re eligible, you’ll receive the full amount you qualify for — and, if you qualify for other student aid, this does not have an impact on your Pell Grant eligibility.

Understanding Expected Family Contribution

As mentioned earlier, your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) plays a role in what you’ll be awarded. This is an index used by college financial aid departments that allows them to calculate how much financial aid you’re eligible to receive if you attended their school. The financial aid departments make these calculations based upon information provided in your FAFSA.

Sometimes, students qualify for 150% of scheduled Pell Grants, and you might hear this referred to as “year-round Pell.” That’s because, sometimes, you can also receive Pell Grant funding during the summer semester. If this interests you, you’ll need to talk to your school’s financial aid department about the requirements for this type of Pell Grant.

Additional Pell Grant Funding for Military Service in Afghanistan or Iraq

Students may be eligible for more funding if their parent or guardian was a:

•   member of the U.S. military who died as a result of service performed in Iraq and/or Afghanistan, post 9/11

•   public safety officer who died in active service in the line of duty

Eligibility requirements also include that, at the time of this death, you were younger than 24 years old or were enrolled in college or a career school on at least a part-time basis. If you qualify and are eligible for a Pell Grant, then your eligibility will be calculated as if you had an EFC of zero. If you’re attending less than full-time, then payments will be adjusted accordingly.

What Sorts of Expenses Can the Pell Grant Be Used For?

The Pell Grant can be used to cover qualified education-related expenses, including:


Pell Grant funds can be used to pay for the cost of tuition.

Educational Expenses

You can use your Pell Grant to pay for other education-related expenses, such as the cost of books, lab fees, or other supplies like a graphic calculator or other expenses related to your course of study.

Living Expenses

It’s also possible to use the Pell Grant to pay for living expenses. This could cover room and board at your college or university. Or, if you live off-campus, this could cover the cost of rent.

Is There Ever a Reason Not to Take a Pell Grant?

Because the Pell Grant does not typically need to be repaid, it is a desirable type of financial aid. If you expect to earn a larger award in the future — for example if you plan on transferring to a more expensive institution or anticipate your EFC to be less — you may consider declining your award in the hopes of qualifying for a larger award in future years.

When You Still Need More Money

The FAFSA, which is required to qualify for the Pell Grant, is also required for other forms of financial aid. In your financial aid award, you’ll also be able to review any scholarships, grants, work-study, or federal student loans you may have qualified for.

Generally, scholarships, grants, and work-study are relied on before student loans. Then federal student loans, particularly Direct Subsidized Loans which, as mentioned, do not accrue interest until after a student graduates or drops below half-time enrollment.

Private Scholarships

Thoroughly investigate scholarship opportunities, as well as grants. To increase your chances of successfully receiving these kinds of funding, it can really help to carefully prepare to apply for them. Materials you will likely need include transcripts, personal references, and a personal statement.

You can ask a trusted adult, whether that’s a teacher, parent, or guidance counselor, to read over what you’ve written. And, although some of the scholarship or grant amounts might at first look small, multiple smaller awards can really add up.

Part-Time Job

If you don’t qualify for or can’t find a work-study job, you can still seek employment on your own. Colleges often provide job boards that list opportunities for employment, either on or off campus.

You can also check job sites that aren’t connected with the college, and ask guidance counselors, professors, and friends and family for leads.

No matter how you find a job, having one can help you to earn money for college while also helping you to build a resume that could prove valuable as you look for full-time employment after graduation.

Private Student Loans

You can fill in the gap between what you can obtain with federal student loans, scholarships, and grants with private student loans. These loans differ from federal loans in many ways, with federal ones having fairly static criteria, including fixed interest rates, multiple plans for repayment, and options for loan forgiveness.

Private loans, as mentioned, are offered by financial institutions, such as banks and online lenders. To request funds, you fill out an application, just like you might for a car loan, a mortgage, or a personal loan. To qualify, the lender will typically review your income and your credit score — and those of your cosigner, should you need one — among other financial factors.

Private lenders set their own criteria for loan approvals, as well as their own terms. Private student loans can come with multiple benefits and, in many cases, they can provide the funding that would ultimately make a difference between being able to pay tuition — or not.

There are also downsides to borrowing private student loans. They don’t have the loan forgiveness programs that are available with federal student loans, or income-driven repayment plans. This means that private student loans are generally considered only after all other options have been evaluated.

If private loans may make sense for you, shop around to compare lenders and find the option that is best for you. To help determine what your payments might be with private loan funding, you can use this student loan calculator to get an idea.

Recommended: I Didn’t Get Enough Financial Aid: Now What?

The Takeaway

Pell Grants are awarded to students who exhibit exceptional financial need. Pell Grants do not typically need to be repaid and the amount awarded to each student may vary based on their personal financial circumstances. The maximum award for the 2023-24 school year is $7,395.00.

Other options for paying for college include federal student loans, scholarships, work-study, and grants.

If you’ve exhausted all federal student aid options, no-fee private student loans from SoFi can help you pay for school. The online application process is easy, and you can see rates and terms in just minutes. Repayment plans are flexible, so you can find an option that works for your financial plan and budget.

Cover up to 100% of school-certified costs including tuition, books, supplies, room and board, and transportation with a private student loan from SoFi.


What disqualifies you from getting a Pell Grant?

The Pell Grant is awarded to undergraduate students who demonstrate exceptional financial aid. To determine this, factors like your family’s Expected Family Contribution (EFC) and the cost of your school will be evaluated. Students who don’t demonstrate exceptional financial need generally won’t qualify for a Pell Grant.

Individuals who are incarcerated are also not eligible to receive a Pell Grant.

Will you ever need to pay back a Pell Grant?

In most cases, you won’t be required to repay a Pell Grant. In certain situations, a student may need to repay all or a portion of their grant — such as if they dropped out of school or dropped from full-time to part-time enrollment.

Is there a minimum GPA required for a Pell Grant? Does it have to be maintained for your whole degree?

In order to maintain eligibility for a Pell Grant, you’ll need to make satisfactory academic progress toward your degree. The specific requirements will be outlined by your school, but may include a minimum GPA.

SoFi Private Student Loans
Please borrow responsibly. SoFi Private Student Loans are not a substitute for federal loans, grants, and work-study programs. You should exhaust all your federal student aid options before you consider any private loans, including ours. Read our FAQs. SoFi Private Student Loans are subject to program terms and restrictions, and applicants must meet SoFi’s eligibility and underwriting requirements. See SoFi.com/eligibility-criteria for more information. To view payment examples, click here. SoFi reserves the right to modify eligibility criteria at any time. This information is subject to change.

Financial Tips & Strategies: The tips provided on this website are of a general nature and do not take into account your specific objectives, financial situation, and needs. You should always consider their appropriateness given your own circumstances.

Non affiliation: SoFi isn’t affiliated with any of the companies highlighted in this article.

Third-Party Brand Mentions: No brands, products, or companies mentioned are affiliated with SoFi, nor do they endorse or sponsor this article. Third-party trademarks referenced herein are property of their respective owners.


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