The Pell Grant was developed as a way to help low-income families and students afford the cost of a higher education. As the cost of tuition has skyrocketed in recent years, this grant has become an essential part of the typical financial aid package. Unlike Stafford Loans that are also issued as part of financial aid programs, a grant does not have to be repaid. This helps low-income students dramatically reduce the amount of tuition they pay out of pocket and, in the future, reduces their student debt burden by more than $5,000 per year.

Eligibility: How Do Students Apply and Receive a Grant?

Like virtually all federal student aid programs, students who wish to receive grant or loan funds, including those from the Pell program, must file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Grant funds are subject to limited availability, which means students must fall within certain income requirements and they must submit their FAFSA application during a “priority period” enforced by their college or university.

Grant funds can be increased or reduced based on a student’s demonstrated financial need. A government formula gathers data about a student’s income and, for dependent students, their parents’ income. Students with demonstrated financial need will receive a full grant of more than $5,600.

Summer Courses and Pell Funds: A Primer

Previously, the Pell program provided grants to students for fall, spring, and summer courses. Several years ago, this policy was discontinued. Currently, any funds awarded must be split evenly between the fall and spring semesters. If students are only attending for one semester, they may receive only half of the total funds awarded to them by their academic institution. A separate summer grant is no longer available. With that said, students can elect to designate half of their Pell funds to summer courses and forego the funds during either the fall or spring semesters if they wish to have the funds to cover summer tuition expenses.

Grant Limits: The Pell Program Doesn’t Last Forever

Students are entitled to consideration for Pell Grant funds during their undergraduate academic program. The grant typically is not awarded to graduate or doctoral students. Even undergraduate students can only receive funds for up to 12 semesters. After these 12 semesters, the FAFSA will exclude students from grant consideration and craft an aid package that simply focuses more heavily on Stafford student loans. The easiest solution to this potential problem is simply to complete a degree program in the typical four or five years that most universities allot.

Help for Children of Veterans: A Pell Perk

One Pell program that is commonly overlooked is a program that specifically seeks to help the children of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans killed in action. Children who apply for financial aid with the FAFSA, are less than 24 years old, and attend school at least part-time, will be considered to have an estimated family contribution of $0. This means that all qualifying students automatically qualify for Pell funds, regardless of their current parent or guardian’s income, their own income, and any other financial factors that might affect consideration for this important program. Even students who do not qualify for this program will be considered for a special grant know as the Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grant.

A Helpful Program When Offsetting the High Cost of Tuition

College costs have increased dramatically in recent decades. The best way to offset these cost is to first consider grants and scholarship opportunities, and then fill in with Stafford student loans to make up the difference. The Pell Grant is the largest and easiest program for students to qualify for, reducing their tuition expenses and providing them the opportunity to pursue and afford a college education.

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