Community college scammers receive $5mil in Pell Grants

Scammers have abused the federal financial aid process to get millions of dollars.

California’s community colleges have given more than $5 million to fraudulent “Pell runners” since fall 2021, a report from CalMatters finds.

Pell runners are scammers who enroll in community colleges to apply for a federal Pell grant and then disappear. 


The backstory: The Pell Grant provides needs-based financial aid to students, with the maximum federal Pell Grant award for the 2022-2023 year coming in at $6,895. 

The big picture: According to reports from California’s community colleges to the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office, over $5 million has been handed out to Pell runners. 

  • Additionally, the state’s community colleges report that the scammers have also received close to $1.5 million in state and local aid. 
  • The Chancellor’s Office began requiring 116 community colleges to submit reports about fraud three years ago, suspecting 20% fraudulent applicants at the time. 

Go deeper: Fraud has increased despite expectations of subside after the COVID-19 pandemic and special one-time grants to help students

  • In January 2024, the Chancellor’s Office suspected 25% fraudulent applicants. 
  • College officials suspect most of the fake students are bots and often display tell-tale signs. 
  • The data and information collected show that fraud represents less than 1% of the total financial aid awarded to community college students in the same time period. 
  • California allocated more than $125 million since 2022 to detect fraud, enhance cybersecurity, and make changes in the online application process. 
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