Determining Eligibility for the Federal Pell Grant Program

Written by Michael Bennet

To determine your Pell Grant eligibility you must keep in mind the primary reason why the Pell Grant was instituted in the first place—to give students that couldn’t otherwise afford college the financial aid they need to get a higher education.

The federal Pell Grant eligibility criteria therefore falls in line primarily in accordance with this purpose, and it is your financial need for aid that will be weighed the most heavily during this process.

There are still other requirements that you must take into consideration if you want to establish your federal Pell Grant eligibility, and these boil down to Pell Grant specific, and general federal student aid criteria.

This essentially means that there are a variety of qualitative items that you must satisfy in order to become eligible for the Pell Grant, with two of these being specific only to the federal Pell Grant, and the rest having to do with all types of federal student aid.

Once you have satisfied this list of Pell Grant requirements in accordance with demonstrating the appropriate level of financial need, the final Pell Grant amount you may then be able to receive will be calculated with regard to your EFC, cost of attendance, and enrollment status.

Your school’s financial aid department will make the final determination of the exact award amount you are able to get for that academic year, and they may be able to adjust the standard amount that you were supposed to receive if you are able to show them that you have recently experienced what are considered to be “unusual circumstances”.

Financial Need, Cost of Attendance, and EFC

Because your Pell Grant eligibility is so heavily reliant on your ability to demonstrate an exceptional financial need, it is first important to define what that means exactly. Financial need is ultimately a product of the following equation:

  • Financial Need = Cost of Attendance (CoA) – Expected Family Contribution (EFC)

The greater the disparity is between the cost of attending your particular institution and the money your family has to put towards your college education, the higher your financial need will be in the eyes of the Department of Education.

Cost of attendance, or CoA, is simply the standardized amount that is supposed to represent the entire cost of going to your college for a full academic year. Expected family contribution, or EFC, is an indicator of the amount of money your family is able to contribute towards the cost of your higher education, and it is calculated once you have successfully submitted the FAFSA.

The FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is the government’s universal application for federal student aid, and it is the only Pell Grant application that you need to complete if you want to become eligible. The following contains a listing of the information that is utilized to determine your EFC during the submission of your FAFSA.

  • Student’s Income (and assets if independent)
  • Parents’ Income (and assets if dependent)
  • Household Size
  • Number of Family Members Attending Postsecondary Institutions (excluding parents)

Other factors that may play a role to a minor extent include your parents’ age, and if they are employed or not. A formula is then used to determine a final EFC value, and this will take into consideration only a percentage of net income after certain allowances are made for basic living expenses, and taxes.

The assessment rates, and various allowances that are used will vary in accordance with your dependency status, and will therefore be different if you are a dependent student, an independent student with dependents, or an independent student without dependents.

The Maximum EFC Cutoff Threshold

Once your EFC is calculated, it is then compared with a standardized eligibility schedule in order to determine whether or not you may become eligible for a Pell Grant. Each year a maximum EFC cutoff threshold is established with regard to the Pell Grant program, with the current amount set at 5,081 for the 2013-2014 school year.

This is the absolute maximum EFC value that you can exhibit if you want to become eligible for the Pell Grant, and the lower your EFC is below this threshold, the better your chances are at receiving the maximum Pell Grant amount.

This is because your financial need will be higher as your EFC value falls according to the equation that was provided earlier. The Pell Grant is primarily based upon need, and it is therefore in your best interest to have a low EFC, and a high CoA, if you want to maximize your chances at qualifying for the Pell Grant.

As long as your EFC value is below 5,081, and you have satisfied the Pell Grant eligibility requirements that we will go over next, you will become eligible for at least some Pell Grant aid for that particular academic year.

Pell Grant Specific and Federal Eligibility Requirements

There are other eligibility requirements besides just financial need that you must satisfy in order to become eligible for the Pell Grant. These can be classified as either Pell Grant specific, or general federal student aid requirements depending on whether or not they exist in regard to only the Pell Grant, or for other types of federal student aid as well. There are only two Pell Grant qualifications that are specific to this award.

  • You must be an undergraduate student, and not have earned a bachelor’s, or graduate degree. The main exception to this requirement is if you are enrolled in a postbaccalaureate teacher certificate program, or another graduate program that may lead to licensure.
  • You must not be incarcerated in a federal, or state penal institution.

The other Pell Grant requirements that you must satisfy apply for the majority of other types of federal student aid that are in existence as well, and aren’t strictly applicable to the Pell Grant program. The following contains a quick rundown of these qualifications.

  • You must have a valid social security number.
  • You must be United States citizen, or eligible non-citizen.
  • You must be able to demonstrate that you’ll be able to benefit from enrolling at a postsecondary institution. A high-school diploma, or General Education Developmental certificate will suffice, as well as being able to pass an ability-to-benefit test.

    Other ways of establishing your ability to benefit include showing evidence that you have completed a high school education from within a state-approved homeschooling environment, being able to complete at least six credit-hours of coursework at your college of choice, or being able to show that you meet other state standards that are federally approved.

  • You must be working towards a qualified, degree-oriented program at one of the 5,400 postsecondary institutions that participate in the Pell Grant program.
  • You must make what is considered to be “satisfactory academic progress” as defined by your school.
  • If you are a male between the ages of 18, and 25, you must be enrolled with the Selective Service. You can do this when you fill out your FAFSA.
  • You may not be eligible for federal funding if you have a drug conviction that occurred while you were receiving federal student aid. This will depend heavily on your own personal circumstances, and may be reversed if you undertake the appropriate remediation steps.
  • You must sign a statement that will certify that you will only use your aid for education related purposes, and that you are not currently in default for any federal student loans, or that you don’t owe a refund for any federal education grants.

Getting the Maximum Pell Grant Amount

You will become eligible for the Pell Grant once you have satisfied the aforementioned list of requirements along with having an EFC below 5,081. The Pell Grant amount you are then able to receive will be determined by your school’s financial aid department via the use of several formulas.

These formulas will take into consideration your EFC, cost of attendance, enrollment status, and whether or not you plan to attend school for a full academic year. The following is brief rundown of the various Pell Grant amounts you may be eligible to receive for the 2012-2013 school year.

Maximum Amounts (2013-14):

  • Full-Time: 5,645 dollars
  • Three-Quarter-Time: 4,234 dollars
  • Half-Time: 2,823 dollars
  • Quarter-Time: 1,411 dollars

Minimum Amounts (2013-14):

  • Full-Time: 582 dollars
  • Three-Quarter-Time: 563 dollars
  • Half-Time: 575 dollars
  • Quarter-Time: 563 dollars

Most students get about half of the maximum award amount, while having an EFC of zero, or something close to it will almost guarantee that you’ll be able to receive the full amount. You cannot receive a Pell Grant from more than one school at a time.

If you have gained a positive Pell Grant eligibility status you should receive the full amount of aid that you were able to qualify for, as each school that participates in the program receives enough funding from the Department of Education to pay out the full amounts that their students are eligible to receive.

Applying for a Pell Grant

When you are ready to apply for a Pell Grant, you simply need to fill out the FAFSA before the appropriate deadlines. If you are attending college via a conventional academic schedule, and will be taking classes beginning during the fall semester, the earliest you can submit the FAFSA is on January 1 for the upcoming school year. The latest you can submit one is June 30. It is recommended that you apply as early as possible in order to take advantage of the federal aid that is available on a first-come, first-serve basis.

You can fill out the Pell Grant application online, or by completing its written counterpart. You can obtain a hard-copy by calling the number 1-800-4-FED-AID, or by requesting one from your school’s financial aid office. Once you have completed your FAFSA a Student Aid Report, or SAR should be generated. Within this report will be an overview of all the information you provided during the completion of your application, your EFC, and your federal Pell Grant eligibility status.

A few months after you have submitted your FAFSA an award letter should be sent to you from your college. Within this award letter should be a detailing of most of the federal aid you were able to qualify for, including the Pell Grant. You will then have to accept or decline the aid that you were given via a response letter that must be sent back to your school before you begin classes during the fall.

In Conclusion

Becoming eligible for the Pell Grant relies primarily on your ability to demonstrate an exceptional financial need for aid, although you must still be able to satisfy the array of Pell Grant specific, and general federal student aid eligibility requirements that are in place for that particular academic year.

Your financial need will be determined almost completely by your EFC, and this value will be calculated with regard to your household income, and other factors such as your household size, and the number of family members that are currently attending postsecondary institutions.

If your EFC is below 5,081, and you have met the appropriate Pell Grant specific, and general federal student aid requirements, you will become eligible for Pell Grant aid. The final amount you are able to receive will then be determined by your college’s financial aid office via certain formulas that were provided to them by the federal government. These formulas will take into consideration your EFC, cost of attendance, enrollment status, and your plans to attend school for a full academic year.

You should be able to get the full amount that you were able to qualify for, and this money will typically be proportioned, and deposited into your student account at the beginning of each academic term that you successfully attend. Most federal Pell Grants are awarded at about half the maximum available amount for that particular school year, and the higher your level of financial need is, the more aid you will typically be able to qualify for.