The Office of Federal Student Aid describes Pell grants as the foundation of the federal student aid grant programs. When you are awarded a Pell grant, you do not have to repay the money. This makes Peel grants preferable to student loans, which must be repaid. In addition, if you qualify for a Pell grant, you’ll be considered for several other federal grant awards as well.
Pell grants are awarded for one academic year at a time. You apply for the Pell Grant by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also referred to as the FAFSA (fafsa.ed.gov). Since the Pell lasts for a single year, you must reapply each year. Whether or not you receive a Pell Grant is based on financial need. Financial need is determined by the expected family contribution (EFC) amount stated on your Student Aid Report, which in turn is derived from the information you provide on your FAFSA.
The maximum amount of a Pell Grant is $5,550 (as of the 2011-2012 academic year), although you won’t necessarily get the full amount. The grant money must be divided into at least two payments, called disbursements. Starting with the 2011-2012 academic year, you may receive only one Pell award per academic year. This means that if you plan to attend a summer session, Pell grant money will be available only if some is left over from prior terms of that academic year.
You have to be less than 24 years old to be eligible for Pell Grant money. In addition, you have to be enrolled at least half time. Pell grants are open to undergraduate students who are working on associate’s degrees, bachelor’s degrees or certificates. A postgraduate student preparing for teacher certification may be able to qualify as well.
You can submit a FAFSA application online starting in January for the upcoming academic year. Federal Student Aid accepts applications until June 30 of the following calendar year. For example, you could submit a FAFSA for the 2011-2012 academic year starting in January 2011 until the end of June 2012. However, individual schools set their own application deadlines. In general, it’s best to submit your FAFSA each year as soon as possible.