Confusing need-based and merit-based awards

Pell Grant awards and scholarships are similar in the sense that neither has to be repaid as long as all conditions of the grant are met. However, they differ in one important respect: Pell Grants are strictly need-based. In order to get a Pell Grant, the student must demonstrate need for assistance based on financial information provided in his or her Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

Assuming all Pell Grants are the same size

Although a standard formula for calculating Pell Grant awards is approved annually by Congress and is applied uniformly to all students, Pell Grants range from $650-$6,195 (for the 2019-2020 academic year). The actual amount of the award depends on each student’s financial need and the availability of other financial aid to reduce the gap between the student’s Expected Family Contribution (EFC) and the Cost of Attendance (COA) at the school where the student plans to enroll. In other words, Pell Grants vary in size because they are awarded to eligible students after all other forms of financial aid have been offered.

Not knowing about other types of financial aid

Students with special circumstances, such as significant medical expenses or other conditions that affect their ability to pay for their education, may be offered additional assistance by their financial aid office if they inquire. It may be possible for the school’s financial aid administrator to make adjustments to the Cost of Attendance (COA) or the data used to calculate the student’s Expected Family Contribution (EFC). These adjustments could lower costs and/or increase awards for students with special circumstances.

Assuming you are ineligible for financial aid because you are a part-time student

Schools cannot deny Pell Grants to part-time students or students who are enrolled for less than a full academic year. This means Pell Grants are also available to eligible part-time students who submit a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Since Pell Grant awards take attendance status into account, part-time students get proportionally smaller grant amounts than full-time students.

Not making sure your school program is covered

The federal Pell Grant Program is designed for students working toward their Bachelor’s degree or their first degree in a professional field such as pharmacy or dentistry. Exceptions are made only for postbaccalaureate students enrolled in teaching programs.