Students in the latter years of high school and their families may become preoccupied with ways to fund higher education. The acronym FAFSA, for Free Application for Federal Student Aid, becomes a common term, as it is a prerequisite for almost any type of need-based financial aid. Students often wonder if FAFSA and Pell Grants are the same thing, but they are not. FAFSA does not award any money, but it does determine eligibility for the federal Pell Grant.

Pell Grants vs FAFSA

The Pell Grant is a financial aid grant for college tuition and expenses that, unlike other loans, does not need to be repaid. The FAFSA is the application process that the U.S. Department of Education uses to evaluate and determine the need for financial aid for the applicant's higher education. To make these determinations, the FAFSA uses a formula that compares the family's Expected Family Contribution (EFC) to the cost of college tuition and expenses. The formula includes family and student income, assets, size of the household, and how many household members other than the parents are enrolled in institutions of post-secondary education. After filing the FAFSA, students receive the Student Aid Report, and their school also receives notification of Pell Grant eligibility based on the EFC.

Independent Students and Special Circumstances

Federal law assumes the applicant's primary family will be responsible for paying for post-secondary educational expenses to the best of their ability. Independent students over age 24 may qualify based on their own income as long as they do not reside with their family or depend on them for financial support. Younger students may qualify as independents if they are orphaned, married, have children or are veterans of the U.S. military. Certain special circumstances allow dependent students to submit FAFSA information without including the parents' financial details, such as parental incarceration or legally documented parental abuse.

FAFSA Pell Grant Requirements

Before being re-named in honor of the late Rhode Island Senator Claiborne Pell, a staunch educational opportunity advocate, these federal grants were called Basic Educational Opportunity Grants. To qualify for a Pell Grant, students must be a U.S. citizen or eligible non-citizen, earned a high school diploma or equivalent, have never earned an undergraduate degree and be enrolled in or accepted to an eligible degree or certificate program. Students applying for a Pell Grant must also meet financial eligibility requirements that considers the EFC. Students enrolled in the federal Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) grant program may also receive Pell Grants.


For the 2018 to 2019 academic year, the maximum award for the Pell grant was $6,095. Award amounts vary due to costs at the student's particular institution of higher learning, financial need, full or part-time attendance and whether the student attends for the entire academic year. Students may only receive Pell grants to attend one post-secondary school at a time. To remain eligible for Pell grants, students must make "satisfactory academic progress" as defined by the institution.

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