Differences Between the FAFSA & a Pell Grant

by Alex Burke ; Updated July 27, 2017
Pell Grants help students pay for tuition, books and classroom expenses.

Federal financial aid for college students arrives as a grant, work-study program or a loan. The federal application process can get confusing due to the abundant use of acronyms, the use of both paper and electronic applications and the variety of choices the student has to begin the process. Students can tap schools, financial institutions and federal sources to start the request for financial support; however, the process always begins by filling out a FAFSA.

Grant Versus Application

FAFSA stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid. FAFSA is the document that every college student fills out to request financial aid from the federal government. Banks and financial service companies offering student loans also use the FAFSA document because their funding often comes from federal sources. The application gathers all important personal and family financial information into one source so that it can collect and manage accurate figures regarding the student's ability to pay for college. Decisions about what grants, loans and work-study programs the student qualifies for are made using the information provided in a FAFSA.

On the other hand, the Pell Grant is not an application. The Pell is money awarded to the student to pay for college expenses. Pell Grants require a FAFSA, but a FAFSA does not require a Pell Grant.

Award Amounts Differ

The Pell Grant is one of many financial solutions provided by the federal government to help pay for a student's education. The Pell typically goes to an undergraduate student who has never received a bachelor or graduate degree. However, some post-baccalaureate teaching programs can award Pell Grants. Amounts awarded can vary from year to year, and money goes directly to the school and then to the student. Award money for the 2008 to 2009 school year was a maximum of $4,731 per student; students can receive smaller amounts depending on their qualifications.

The FAFSA awards money from a list of sources, including a Pell Grant. Sources for money also include the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG), the Academic Competitiveness Grant (ACG) and the National Science and Mathematics Access to Retain Talent Grant (National SMART Grant). The FAFSA also awards work-study jobs as well as grants. The money awarded through a FAFSA can be larger than the money awarded with a Pell Grant.

Differences In Paperwork

The FAFSA requires gathering together personal financial information and may take several hours or more to fill out. Once completed, the federal government evaluates a student's financial information and eligibility. The federal government uses a number of criteria to award financial aid including financial need, previous education and legal requirements like legal citizenship and ownership of a Social Security number. Information provided on the FAFSA is checked against federal resources for accuracy. Social security numbers and alien registration numbers are verified, and the student's information is also matched to the National Student Loan Data System (NSLDS) to check for previous defaulted federal loans.

The Pell Grant does not require more paperwork before the student uses the funds. The FAFSA is the paperwork used for the Pell Grant and other financial aid. Students may have to sign a release form to formally receive the Pell Grant depending upon the policies of the school they are attending. However, they will not be required to provide additional financial information in the form of paperwork or an application in order to for the money to be applied to their tuition or other college expenses.

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About the Author

Alex Burke holds a degree in environmental design and a Master of Arts in information management. She's worked as a licensed interior designer, artist, database administrator and nightclub manager. A perpetual student, Burke writes Web content on a variety of topics, including art, interior design, database design, culture, health and business.

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