Students can use Pell Grants, which are federal funds intended to help low-income individuals with higher education expenses, to pay the costs of attending trade schools or undergraduate studies at colleges or universities in the United States. The federal government has maximum amounts it can grant to students through the Pell Grant program.
The maximum annual amount of Pell Grant funding was $5,500 as of February 2011, says Federal Student Aid. However, due to their financial backgrounds and/or school costs, many students are not eligible for the maximum amount of Pell Grant funding. Additionally, a student's enrollment status (full- or part-time) and time remaining in college also factor into Pell Grant eligibility.
Independent vs. Dependent Status
The federal government puts students into two categories for financial aid purposes: independent and dependent. Those classed as dependents must include their parents' financial information on their FAFSA, regardless of whether their parents actually plan to contribute any money towards their education. Students classed as independents need only include their own (and their spouses', if married) salary, tax and asset information. To be an independent, a student must either be 24 years of age or older (at the start of an academic year), married, have children, a ward of the court or orphan, a U.S. military veteran or on active duty with the U.S. Armed Forces.
Expected Family Contribution
The government uses students' (and parents', for dependent students) financial and tax information to calculate the Expected Family Contribution (EFC), which is a detailed estimate of how much students' and/or their families are able to pay for education. Because the federal government awards Pell Grant funds on a need-based sliding scale, students with very low EFCs will likely be eligible for the maximum Pell Grant amount, while those with higher EFC numbers will be eligible for smaller amounts of Pell Grant funding, or none at all, if their (or their parents') incomes are deemed too high by their schools' financial aid adjusters.
Considerations and Alternatives
Students under age 24 who are children of U.S. military members killed in the Iraq or Afghanistan wars after September 11, 2001, are automatically eligible for the maximum Pell Grant amount, if they qualify for such grants based on their EFCs, enrollment plans and time remaining as students. Additionally, individuals who are not eligible for Pell Grants may still obtain collegiate financing through other government student grant programs, federal student loans or private loan sources.