Federal Education Assistance Programs: Pell Grants + TRIO How to Apply & Get the Most Financial Aid for College

Financial aid programs are available to help ease the financial burden of attending college. In fact, sometimes those programs mean the difference between going to school and not attending at all. The Pell Grant and TRIO are two good examples of programs that help students get into and through college when they might not have been able to afford it otherwise. Let’s look at these federal programs and how those with certain socioeconomic or financial disadvantages can make the most of them.


Understanding the Federal Pell
Grant Program

The Pell Grant is popular form of federal financial aid that goes to students who do not have the financial means to otherwise pay for college. The Pell Grant is popular because it does not need to be paid back, like a student loan does. In most situations, the Pell Grant is paid directly to the school, which then uses it to lower the amount of money the student will owe for tuition, fees and room and board (if applicable).

  • The exact size of the Pell Grant will depend on the level of financial need of the student. It is subject to statutory adjustments each year. However, the most a student can receive each year is about $6,000.

  • Service in the U.S. Armed Forces is another determining factor; specifically, if the student’s parent or guardian died in the line of duty as a member of the US Armed Forces in post 9/11 Iraq or Afghanistan. If this applies, and the student is less than 24 years of age and was in school when the death occurred, the Pell Grant will be calculated by using an Expected Family Contribution (or EFC) amount of $0.

How to Apply for the Pell Grant

The sole method of applying for the Pell Grant is to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. The FAFSA is necessary to apply for not just the Pell Grant, but other forms of financial aid, such federal loans. The FAFSA is also required by many states and schools for applying for other forms of financial aid, like grants and scholarships. The FAFSA may be completed online or on paper.

Students must complete the FAFSA for each year they intend to attend college and would like to receive the Pell Grant. The FAFSA is due the June 30 before they intend to attend classes in the fall. For example, if a student plans to enroll in college in the fall of 2019, the student’s FAFSA is due on June 30, 2019.

However, students can complete and submit the FAFSA as early as October 1 of each year. Because the FAFSA is a key component for so many forms of financial aid, some of which are available on a first-come-first-served basis, students are encouraged to submit their FAFSA as close to October 1 as possible.

Who Is Eligible?

Besides completing the FAFSA, to qualify for a Pell Grant, applicants must demonstrate that they:

  • Are currently or will be an undergraduate college student at an accredited postsecondary institution
  • Will have not already earned a bachelor or professional degree
  • Are not currently in prison or jail
  • Are not subject to involuntary civil commitment following prison or jail as a result of committing a sexual offense crime
  • Have a financial need
  • Have a high school diploma, GED or completed the equivalent from a home school setting
  • Be a US citizen, national, resident or have another form of qualified immigrant status

One of the biggest questions concerning eligibility is what constitutes financial need. The US Department of Education determines financial need by looking at information provided in the FAFSA to calculate the student’s EFC. This is then compared to the cost of attendance, or COA. The difference between the EFC and COA is used to determine a student’s financial need.

Students who qualify for a Pell Grant must maintain their eligibility by:

  • Continued enrollment in school
  • Completing a FAFSA every year while in school
  • Making satisfactory academic progress while in school
  • Continuing to meet the basic Pell Grant eligibility criteria that allowed the awarding of the Pell Grant in the first place

“Little known fact: Pell Grants can be included in taxable income to actually qualify a taxpayer from sizable education credits.” said Suzanne Weathers, EA, owner of Weathers & Associates Consulting in Spokane, Washington. “However, universities and those not knowledgeable are telling students/parents this makes them ineligible for credit.”

The IRS warns about this problem: “For students with scholarships, such as Pell Grants, the process for claiming education-related tax credits, like the American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC), is unusually complex and results in many eligible students and parents (if the student is a dependent) foregoing tax credits for which they qualify.”

If you qualify for a Pell Grant or any other financial aid, speak with a trusted tax advisor before filing taxes – there might be tax benefits in your situation.

Understanding the TRiO Program

TRIO (also known as TRiO) is not an acronym or an abbreviation. Rather, the name represents the original three federal programs designed to help individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds, Upward Bound, Talent Search and Student Support Services. Today, TRIO still has these original three programs, as well as five more: Educational Opportunity Centers, Veterans Upward Bound, Training Program for Federal TRIO Program, Upward Bound Math-Science and Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program.

Upward Bound is intended to identify high school students who show promise for attending and graduating from college, but who have characteristics that, historically, make it more difficult for them to do so. Prime candidates for Upward Bound are those whose parents did not attend college, come from a low income family or live in a rural, underserved area. The exact nature of the Upward Bound program will depend on the provider, but often includes individual tutoring during the school year, an opportunity to gain work experience on a college campus and offering college prep classes during the summer.

Students Support Services, or SSS, exists at the college level, where eligible students receive additional help with college requirements. Each school will have its own SSS components, but at a minimum they will include tutoring, advice with course selection, guidance on how to apply for financial aid, assistance with applying to graduate school and financial literacy counseling.

Similar to Upward Bound, Talent Search looks for disadvantaged individuals and seeks to help those who have the potential to graduate high school and succeed in college. Programs for students can include tutoring, mentoring, career observation opportunities, and college information sessions. Students will also receive guidance on the college financial aid process.

The Education Opportunity Centers (EOC) program is like many other TRIO programs in that it’s designed to help individuals get a college education. But what makes the EOC unique is that they focus on adults, rather than children and teens. The EOC also promotes education of adults with respect to financial matters. This financial education helps with not only obtaining financial aid, but with basic financial literacy skills to improve their overall finances as well. Participants have opportunities to attend career workshops and receive assistance with completion of admissions applications.

Unlike most other TRIO programs, the Training program for Federal TRIO Programs is not intended for current or prospective college students. Instead, these programs exist to provide additional training to individuals who run or administer TRIO programs. Funding for this program goes to workshops, seminars, lectures, conferences and any other skill-building opportunities.

As its name implies, Veterans Upward Bound is very similar to the traditional Upward Bound program, except it’s targeted toward student veterans. Veteran students receive guidance on applying to postsecondary institutions, as well as gaining the skills necessary to succeed in college. Benefits include refresher courses, tutoring, mentoring and special instruction in general education academic areas (like reading, writing and study skills).

With the current overall demand for graduates knowledgeable in math and science, Upward Bound Math-Science aims to tailor the conventional Upward Bound TRIO program by placing an emphasis on these two important subject areas. The hope is to encourage disadvantaged students to obtain a college degree, and ultimately a career, in a field related to science or math. Eligible students receive counseling and tutoring service, interact with a mentor, participate in academic and cultural events and get assistance with applying to college and obtaining financial aid.

While most TRIO programs focus on helping students obtain an undergraduate college degree, the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program looks to help graduate students from underrepresented societal groups obtain doctoral level degrees. Participants will receive assistance from their respective undergraduate schools in the form of internships, seminars, tutoring, counseling and assistance in obtaining admission into and paying for graduate school.

How to Apply for a TRiO Program

Who Is Eligible?

Applicants must be between 13 and 19 years of age, have completed middle school (eighth grade) and have a need for academic assistance. Some programs will give preference to those who attend one of the local area high schools or neighborhoods surrounding the program provider. Applicants must also be a prospective first-generation college student or come from a low-income family. Even though only one of these characteristics is required to meet basic eligibility requirements, Upward Bound requires providers to enroll approximately 66 percent of its students from both low-income families and who will be first generation college students.

Students who have been accepted or are current students at a college or university may apply. Students must also be low income and first-generation college students or have a disability. Schools must meet the requirement that 66 percent of all SSS participants must be either disabled or from a family that’s low income and with no other family members with a college degree. Applicants must also be a permanent resident or US citizen.

Any applicant who is between 11 and 27 years of age and has also completed fifth grade is eligible for Talent Search. However, given the emphasis on helping disadvantaged backgrounds, 66 percent of program participants must potentially be the first member of their family to attend college or come from a low-income family.

An individual must be at least 19 years of age and reside in a geographical location that the Educational Opportunity Center serves. The age requirement is waived if the Talent Search program is not available to the individual. As with most other TRIO programs, preference is given to those who are prospective first-generation college students and are of low-income, given the program’s requirements that 66 percent of participants meet both these characteristics.

Anyone who works in a TRIO program is eligible to participate in these training programs.

The primary eligibility requirements include military service and either low-income or a prospective first-generation college student. Per statutory mandate, at least 66 percent of participants will be both low-income and prospective first-generation college students; for this program, 100 percent of participants will have some military service in their background.

Students must have completed eighth grade. They should also be from a low-income family or be a prospective first-generation college student, demonstrate an interest in math or science and live or attend school in an eligible geographical area.

To be eligible, students must be a current student in a degree-granting program as well as meet these requirements: a low-income student, a first-generation college student, demonstrate strong academic potential and come from a historically underrepresented group at the graduate level.

Pell Grant v TRIO Programs

The Pell Grant is Similar to TRIO:

  • Financial need is a primary eligibility requirement.

  • Both require completion of an application, although completion of the FAFSA is not generally a requirement to apply for a TRIO program.

  • The ultimate mission is to help students get into and succeed in college.

  • Colleges and universities often handle both programs, including running the TRIO program and distributing Pell Grants directly to students.

  • The Pell Grant is one single program with one goal in mind: to make college more financially feasible.

  • A student racial background, military service and academic interests are irrelevant when applying for a Pell Grant. Only finances are considered.

TRIO is different from the Pell Grant:

  • TRIO provides a diverse array of assistance to needy to students in the form of programs and activities.

  • TRIO is not college financial aid. Rather, it can help students apply for and obtain financial aid.

  • The applicant’s parents’ educational background is a significant eligibility requirement when applying for a TRIO program.

  • Students who are still several years away from college can apply for and participate in TRIO.

  • TRIO refers to a series of eight individual programs.

  • A student’s racial background, military service and academic interests are important for acceptance into some TRIO programs.


Q. Many students don’t think they qualify for the Pell Grant, but they do. Just how much does this misconception hurt students?

A. Some of the most pernicious misconceptions about the Federal Pell Grant program cause students to not apply. You can't get aid if you don't apply. Yet, each year about 2 million students who would have qualified for a Federal Pell Grant don't get the grant because they don't file the FAFSA. About 1.3 million of them would have qualified for the maximum Federal Pell Grant. Reasons include the student thinking they were ineligible, students thinking they can work their way through college and don't need aid, students thinking that filing the FAFSA obligates them to borrow to pay for college, thinking the FAFSA involves too much work and not knowing how to apply.

Q. What about misconceptions concerning the TRIO programs?

A. Most people have not heard about the Trio programs or know what they do. Originally three programs (hence the name), Trio consists of eight programs designed to help disadvantaged students to prepare them to gain access to a college education. The biggest mistakes students make is not applying for these programs. These programs can help students enroll in and graduate from college. Yet, many students who would benefit from these programs do not apply.

Q. Any advice for students seeking financial aid?

A. Students should file the FAFSA every year, even if they didn't get a Pell Grant last year. Not only does the FAFSA unlock other forms of financial aid, but eligibility for the Pell Grant can change from one year to the next. 

The Future of These Programs

Despite all the political rhetoric as of late, most federal financial aid programs have
remained intact and funded by the U.S. Congress. Even though the current administration
has expressed a desire to significantly cut federal funding to education initiatives,
Congress has thus far accepted very few of these proposals. Additionally, the bulk of the administration’s proposed cuts to financial aid in higher education focus on eliminating the Supplemental Education Opportunity Grant, subsidized loans, public service loan forgiveness program and the GEAR UP program. The most recent budget proposal left the funding for TRIO programs untouched.

In 2017, Congress raised the maximum Pell Grant award to just over $6,000. Interestingly, the administration’s proposed education budget cuts call for enlarging the number of students potentially eligible to receive a Pell Grant. Under current law, students cannot use Pell Grant awards to pay for an academic program that lasts less than 15 weeks or has less than 600 hours of instructional time. The administration’s proposals would modify these requirements so students can use Pell Grants to pay for short-term certificate and diploma programs, which are common in vocational and trade fields, such as construction and technology.

However, all is not perfect for those taking advantage of the Pell Grant and TRIO. Even with the 2017 increase, the Pell Grant award has failed to keep pace with the rising cost of postsecondary education. Therefore, even though the absolute dollar amount for a Pell Grant has gone up, it doesn’t pay for as much now as it used to. In fact, the Pell Grant’s ability to pay for college costs is at its weakest point in roughly 40 years.

It’s also important to remember that even though the Pell Grant is relatively safe for now, the president and Congress have periodically made requests or proposals to take money from reserves that would otherwise be used to pay for the Pell Grant. While this doesn’t immediately end the grant program, it does put its long-term survival at risk.

Additional Resources

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