Guide To Federal Education Assistance Programs

The Pell Grant program awards grants to colleges, secondary schools, and agencies that serve disadvantaged youth. The program also aims to motivate

Updated September 14, 2023 is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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How to Apply and Get the Most Financial Aid for College

The federal government offers financial aid programs to help college students pay for their education. In 2019, the federal student aid program awarded $246 billion in financial aid, including over $41 billion in grants. Federal education assistance programs like the Pell Grants and TRIO support low-income and first-generation college students.

The Pell Grant awards money to low-income college students. Unlike loans, recipients do not need to repay Pell Grants, making them one of the best forms of financial aid. The TRIO program, which includes Upward Bound, Educational Opportunity Centers, and Student Support Services, offers focused assistance for prospective and current college students.

This guide offers an overview of these federal assistance programs to help students maximize their financial aid while earning a college degree.

Pell Grant

The federal Pell Grant program supports undergraduates in financial need. Students apply for Pell Grants by completing the FAFSA, which determines whether they meet income requirements for the Pell Grant program and how much they can receive. Recipients must submit the FAFSA every year to maintain their eligibility for federal education assistance, including Pell Grants.

The maximum Pell Grant award in 2020/2021 is $6,345. However, recipients do not automatically receive the maximum. The federal student aid program calculates Pell Grant awards based on the applicant's family's expected contribution to college expenses, the cost of attending school, program length, and whether applicants plan to attend full time or part time. Learn more about financial aid opportunities.

Who Is Eligible?

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

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:

"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.

Break down your current financial situation, and receive a college tuition estimate you can afford to pay.


The federal TRIO programs support low-income middle schoolers and high schoolers, first-generation college students, and students with disabilities. Funded by the U.S. Department of Education, TRIO funds outreach and student services programs across the country.

TRIO takes its name from the first three programs: Upward Bound, Educational Talent Search, and Special Services. Since the 1960s, TRIO has grown from these original three programs into eight programs operating in all 50 states and in many U.S. territories. The program's reach stretches from middle school through the doctoral level, supporting hundreds of thousands of students each year.

The TRIO program awards grants to colleges, secondary schools, and agencies that serve disadvantaged youth. After receiving funds, these organizations develop and implement student services. Qualifying students can participate in TRIO programs through their school or a community-based organization. However, students must meet eligibility requirements to receive services through a TRIO-funded project.

Upward Bound

The Upward Bound program helps college-bound high schoolers prepare for higher education. Participants receive academic instruction in science, mathematics, language arts, and foreign languages. Depending on the location, students may receive tutoring, counseling services, or other education to improve their financial literacy. The Upward Bound program particularly serves students with limited English proficiency, students from underrepresented groups, homeless students, and students in foster care.

Participants should be between the ages of 13 and 19, demonstrate a need for academic support, and come from a low-income family or a family where neither parent holds a bachelor's degree.

Student Support Services

The Student Support Services program grants funds to support the academic development of college students and help them meet basic college requirements. The program also aims to motivate students to complete a postsecondary degree. Ultimately, Student Support Services works to increase the college retention and graduation rate for students.

Qualifying students must be enrolled or accepted at a postsecondary institution. Pell Grant recipients qualify for Student Support Services programs, as do students with disabilities who show academic need. Undergraduates in their final two years who show a high risk of dropping out can also receive support.

Talent Search

The Talent Search program helps individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds succeed in higher education. Specifically, the program offers academic, career, and financial counseling to middle schoolers, high schoolers, and college students. In addition, the program encourages people who did not complete their secondary or postsecondary education to return to school.

A program with a broad reach, participants must be between the ages of 11 and 27. At least two-thirds of participants must come from low-income families or families where neither parent holds a bachelor's degree. Talent Search aims to encourage participants to graduate from high school, continue on to college, and complete a college degree.

Educational Opportunity Centers

The Educational Opportunity Centers program supports adults considering college and college students pursuing a degree. Through the program, participants receive counseling, information on college admissions, and services to strengthen financial and economic literacy. Participants can learn about their financial aid options, gain financial planning skills, and receive help on their college applications.

Educational Opportunity Centers also offer career workshops, academic advice, tutoring, mentoring, and personal counseling. Participants must be at least 19 years old, and the program primarily helps low-income people and potential first-generation college students. In areas without a Talent Search program, students under age 19 can participate in the Educational Opportunity Centers program.

Training Program for Federal TRIO Programs

The training program for federal TRIO programs awards funds to qualifying organizations to train project directors and staff working in a TRIO program. Organizations can use the grant money to fund conferences, workshops, or seminars. Recipients can also publish manuals or fund internships through the program.

The trainings funded by this program can cover topics like how to best help students receive financial aid, the design of model TRIO programs, TRIO legislative requirements, and using educational technology. Participants may also learn strategies to reach marginalized populations who qualify for TRIO services.

Veterans Upward Bound

The Veterans Upward Bound program helps veterans build their academic and college-readiness skills. Through the program, veterans can receive assessment services and strengthen their core subject knowledge through instruction and tutoring. Common instruction areas include mathematics, science, composition, literature, and foreign language. Veterans can also receive counseling and mentoring services. The Veterans Upward Bound program aims to increase the number of veterans who enroll in college and earn a degree.

Participants in the program must be military veterans who served in active duty in the Armed Forces or were members of a reserve component called to active duty for over 30 days. The program also requires that participants are low-income, first-generation college students.

Upward Bound Math-Science

The Upward Bound Math-Science program emphasizes college readiness in math and science. Students strengthen their mathematical literacy and build science skills. The program encourages participants to develop their math and science potential and pursue college degrees in math and science.

The program funds several types of projects, including intensive summer programs, math and science counseling, and supervised scientific research. Upward Bound Math-Science also offers tutoring, mentoring, and personal counseling. High schoolers from low-income families and potential first-generation college students can participate in the program. Upward Bound Math-Science does not require students to also participate in a regular Upward Bound program.

Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program

The Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program supports college students preparing for doctoral programs. Specifically, McNair offers research and scholarly opportunities to students from disadvantaged backgrounds who show strong academic potential. Colleges work with participants while they complete their bachelor's degree and encourage participants to enroll in graduate programs. The program aims to increase the number of underrepresented students who earn a Ph.D.

McNair projects include summer internships, seminars, tutoring, academic counseling, and research activities. Participants must attend an eligible institution and either come from a low-income family, be a first-generation college student, or come from a group underrepresented in graduate education.

How to Apply for a TRiO Program

Upward Bound

Most applicants will apply directly through the college program provider. Students can go to their local college's website to download a copy of the application and obtain additional school-specific application and program information.

Student Support Services

To participate in Student Support Services, applicants will apply directly through the college or university where they've been accepted or are currently enrolled. The application will typically consist of general demographic and biographical information, as well as questions concerning any disability, parent's educational background and the student's financial situation.

Talent Search

Students interested in applying for entry into the Talent Search program should check with the respective program provider for information about the application process. In most cases, students will need to complete an application form and submit it to the program provider, which is often a college or university. Some schools will have their applications easily available through high school guidance counselors in the local area.

Educational Opportunity Centers

Adults interested should find a participating Educational Opportunity Centers program provider (which is usually a college or university) in their area. From there, they can apply online or download an application form, depending on the provider's specific application requirements.

Training Program for Federal TRIO Programs

Individuals interested in receiving TRIO training can go to the US Department of Education website and look for a list current training opportunities. From there, they can click on the registration link and sign up.

Veterans Upward Bound

The majority of Veterans Upward Bound providers will be colleges and universities. Students can contact their prospective schools directly to see if they offer a Veterans Upward Bound program or go to the National Association of Veterans Upward Bound website to find a program provider and contact them directly. Schools will have an application available online or a direct contact who can assist in enrollment into the program.

Upward Bound Math-Science

Most students will complete an application directly with the Upward Bound Math-Science provider. In most situations, this is a college or university. Interested students go to the school's website and either apply online or download an application form.

Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program

To apply, students should check with their current institution to see if they participate in the program. A current list of participating programs, as well as additional program information, can be found at the McNair Scholars website. Assuming their current school participates in the program, interested students can apply through their school's own application process. This usually consists of an application form, transcriptions, recommendations and information confirming their eligibility, like proof of financial need and being a first-generation college student.

Who Is Eligible?

Upward Bound

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.

Student Support Services

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.

Talent Search

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.

Educational Opportunity Centers

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.

Training Program for Federal TRIO Programs

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

Veterans Upward Bound

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.

Upward Bound Math-Science

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.

Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program

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:

TRIO is different from the Pell Grant:

Financial Aid Questions to Ask About the Pell Grant

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.

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