Sources of financial aid not only limit the amount a student can receive per year, but also the overall amount that a student can borrow over her lifetime. The lifetime limits should allow the average student plenty of financial aid to complete education all the way up through a doctorate. However, students who complete multiple degrees at some levels might eventually run out of financial aid.
Students can only get Pell Grants for undergraduate studies or, in special circumstances, for completing required postbaccalaureate coursework for a teaching certification. The federal government limits Pell Grants to 18 full-time semesters. This should be plenty of time for students to complete their undergraduate coursework. With the maximum annual Pell Grant at $5,550 per year at the time of publication, this is equivalent to $2,775 per semester. Therefore, a student could get up to $49,950 in Pell Grant money over 18 semesters. This amount could increase if the government increases the maximum Pell Grant.
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Students can borrow no more than $138,500 through the federal government's Stafford loan program. Of this amount, the student cannot have more than $65,500 in subsidized Stafford loans. In addition to the lifetime limit, the federal government also limits the amount a student can borrow in Stafford loans for undergraduate studies. Dependent undergraduates can borrow up to $31,000, $23,000 of which can be subsidized. Independent students and students whose parents can't get PLUS loans can borrow up to $57,500 total for undergraduate studies.
Some students with extreme financial need qualify for Perkins loans, which are funded by the federal government and disbursed by the school. A student cannot get more than $60,000 total in Perkins loans in his lifetime. Of this amount, only $27,500 can come through undergraduate studies.
Other types of financial aid might have their own lifetime limits, depending on who is issuing the aid. For example, a school might only offer institutional grants for students for their first four years of undergraduate study because most students who are academically motivated finish by then. State financial aid agencies might also set limits on the amount students can get in grants or loans, but these vary from one state to another. Private lenders might be wary of issuing additional student loans to someone who already has hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt.