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Writing a Winning Grant Proposal
Understanding the Federal Program Descriptions

Understanding the Federal Program Descriptions

Just ask your Uncle Sam!

The U.S. Federal Government hands out well over $300 billion each year to qualified institutions and grant-seeking individuals who 1) know about the existence of the grant programs and, 2) are well informed about the federal program requirements and application procedures.

While a federal program description contains all the necessary information a grant seeker will need in order to apply, the information itself can seem a bit overwhelming in the technical and lengthy style it is written without some basic insight as to how the information is organized and how it applies to you. This page provides you with a complete guide breaking down and understanding the various components of a federal program description.

In order for grant-seekers to identify themselves as potential candidates for federal assistance, it is important to gain a thorough understanding of the requirements, goals, and procedures of a particular federal program from which funding is sought.

Some assistance programs require only States and eligible organizations to apply, while others allow individuals to apply directly to a federal agency. Some programs provide educational scholarships, research grants or insured loans, while others offer counseling, training or technical information rather than financial assistance.

Each program description page contains detailed information, which includes:

  (1) Program Objective
  (2) Type of Assistance Offered
  (3) Applicant Eligibility (Who is Eligible to Apply)
  (4) Beneficiary Eligibility (Who the Program will Ultimately Benefit)
  (5) Application Procedure
  (6) Range and Average of Financial Assistance
  (7) Information Contacts

The following guide details the various elements that make up a federal program description along with an example for each section. You will be able to use the hyperlinks below to jump back and forth between the program sections that are unclear to you.

Composition of a Federal Program Description
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Click on a link to access an explanation of that section:


Content provided by the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance
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Program Number

Each program title is preceded with a five-digit program identification number. The first two digits identify the federal department or agency that administers the program. The last three numbers are assigned in numerical sequence. For example, program number 10.500 is administered by the Department of Agriculture, 11.500 by the Department of Commerce, 12.500 by the Department of Defense, 93.500 by the Department of Health and Human Services, and so on.

Program Title

The program title is the descriptive name a program is assigned. The popular name, which is less descriptive than the program title, is the name by which programs are commonly known or most often used by applicants and agencies.

Example: 84.063 Federal Pell Grant Program (Pell Grants)

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The Federal Agency is the administrative office and primary organizational sub-unit or division of government, commission or council that has the direct operational responsibility for managing a program.


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This section lists the legal authority upon which a program is based (acts, amendments to acts, Public Law numbers, titles, sections, Statute Codes, citations to the U.S. Code, Executive Orders, Presidential Reorganization Plans, and Memoranda from an agency head). Information provided here is used to produce Appendix II, the Authorization Appendix.

Example: Higher Education Act of 1965, Title IV, Part A, Subpart 1, as amended.

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This is a brief statement of specific objectives the program is intended to accomplish along with the goals toward which the program is directed.

Example: To provide eligible undergraduate postsecondary students who have demonstrated financial need with grant assistance to help meet educational expenses.

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This section indicates what type of assistance is offered from the federal government, and how it is initially received by the applicant or distributed for use.

Direct Payments for Specified Use
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Currently, there are 15 types of federal domestic assistance available to the American public. Seven offer financial assistance, and the other eight offer non-financial assistance.

The following chart details each type of assistance along with a brief description.

Move your mouse over a title to access the description

Formula Grants Project Grants
Direct Payments for Specified Use Direct Payments for Unrestricted Use
Direct Loans Guaranteed/Insured Loans
Insurance Sale, Exchange, or Donation of Property and Goods
Use of Property, Facilities, and Equipment Provision of Specialized Services
Advisory Services and Counseling Dissemination of Technical Information
Training Investigation of Complaints

Federal Employment

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This section describes the potential uses for the assistance provided to meet the programs' stated objectives, and the specific restrictions placed upon the use of funds. This section may indicate one or more applications depending upon the nature of a particular program. Applicants may develop a clearer understanding of the program's objectives by carefully reading the "Uses and Use Restrictions" section.

Example: The student must be a U.S. citizen or eligible non-citizen who has been accepted for enrollment in, and is making satisfactory academic progress at, an eligible institution of higher education. Eligible schools may be public or private nonprofit institutions of higher education, (such as colleges, universities, vocational-technical schools, hospital schools of nursing), and for- profit institutions (proprietary). Eligible males who are at least 18 years or older and born after December 31, 1959, can receive aid only if they have registered with the Selective Service. Graduate students and students who have already earned a bachelor's degree are not eligible for assistance. Applicants must demonstrate need according to Part F of the Higher Education Act of 1965, as amended.

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Applicant Eligibility

This section indicates who can apply to the federal government for assistance and the criteria the potential applicant must satisfy. For example, individuals may be eligible for research grants, and the criteria to be satisfied may be that they have a professional or scientific degree, 3 years of research experience, and be a citizen of the United States. Universities, medical schools, hospitals, or State and local governments may also be eligible. Where State governments are eligible, the type of State agency will be indicated (State welfare agency or State agency on aging) and the criteria that they must satisfy.

Certain programs in the Catalog (For example, the Pell Grant program, which provides grants to students) involve intermediate levels of application processing, i.e., applications are transmitted through colleges or universities that are neither the direct applicant nor the ultimate beneficiary. For these programs, the criteria that the intermediate applicants must satisfy are also indicated, along with intermediate applicants who are not eligible

Example: Undergraduate students enrolled as regular students in an eligible program at an eligible institution of higher education and making satisfactory academic progress. The applicants must be U.S. citizens or eligible non-citizens and have a high school diploma, a GED, or demonstrate the ability to benefit from the program offered.

Beneficiary Eligibility

This section lists the ultimate beneficiaries of a program, the criteria they must satisfy, and who specifically is not eligible. The applicant and beneficiary will generally be the same for programs that provide assistance directly from a federal agency. However, financial assistance that passes through State or local governments will have different applicants and beneficiaries since the assistance is transmitted to private sector beneficiaries who are not obligated to request or apply for the assistance.

Example: Undergraduate students that are U.S. citizens or eligible non-citizens and meet financial need criteria. Students must be: regular students in an eligible program and enrolled in institutions of higher education, making satisfactory academic progress. Incarcerated students, except those incarcerated in local penal facilities, are ineligible. Students must sign a statement of educational purpose, not owe a refund on a Title IV grant, and not be in default on a Title IV loan. Eligible males that are at least 18 years old and born after December 31, 1959, can receive aid only if they have registered with the Selective Service.


This is a brief description of the credentials or documentation required prior to, or along with, an application for assistance. The eligibility factors that must be proven, certified, or established are indicated in this section. This section also indicates whether OMB Circular No. A-87 requirements, "Cost Principles Applicable to Grants and Contracts with State and Local Governments," are applicable.

In cases where specific federal circulars or other regulatory requirements are not applicable to the program, disclaimer statements may be included referencing the requirement(s) from which the program is excluded, e.g., "This program is excluded from coverage under � (applicable requirement)."

Example: This program is excluded from coverage under OMB Circular No. A-87.

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Pre-application Coordination

This section indicates whether any prior coordination or approval is required with governmental or non-governmental units prior to the submission of a formal application to the federal funding agency.

For example, programs may require:

  1. State agency approval prior to the submission of an application to a federal agency.

  2. Submission of environmental impact information as required by the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, and Executive Order 11514 of March 4, 1970.
  3. Coordination with the policies of the recently revised OMB Circular No. A-102, "Uniform Administrative Requirements for Grants and Cooperative Agreements to State and Local Governments" (referenced here for construction, land acquisition, and land development projects for which federal funding exceeds $100,000).
  4. Coverage for eligibility under Executive Order 12372, "Intergovernmental Review of Federal Programs".
  5. A pre-application or pre-application conference. Applicants should also ascertain from the federal agency the existence of other circular requirements not indicated by this section, and from the State, any State requirements, which may be in effect. In cases where E.O. 12372 is not applicable to the program, a disclaimer statement is included referencing the exclusion, e.g., "This program is excluded from coverage under E.O. 12372."

Example: This program is excluded from coverage under E.O. 12372. This program is excluded from coverage under OMB Circular No. A-102.

Application Procedure

This section discusses the basic procedural steps required by the federal agency in the application process, beginning with the lowest level (For example, State and local government units, institutions or organizations) and ending eventually with the federal government. Each program will indicate whether applications are to be submitted to the federal headquarters, regional or local office, or to a State or local government office. Numerous programs in the Catalog require the standard application forms in OMB Circular No. A-102 (Attachment M).

Other applications may be in the form of a written request to the funding agency stating the need for assistance and requesting available services, or a formal proposal prepared in response to an announcement in the Federal Register or the Commerce Business Daily. Also indicated in this section is guidance concerning the applicability of OMB Circular No. A-110, "Grants and Agreements with Institutions of Higher Education, Hospitals, and Other Nonprofit Organizations."

In cases where specific federal circulars or other regulatory requirements are not applicable to the program, disclaimer statements may be included referencing the requirement(s) from which the program is excluded, e.g., "This program is excluded from coverage under � (applicable requirement)."

Example: Student completes a "Free Application for Federal Student Aid" and submits it to the agency specified on the form. Students may apply using a paper application, an electronic application, or via the Internet. The U.S. Department of Education calculates the student's financial eligibility for assistance and the agency to which the student sent the application returns a notification to the student of his or her eligibility for assistance. The student submits this notification to the institution of his or her choice in order to have his or her award calculated. This program is excluded from coverage under OMB Circular No. A-110.
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Award Procedure

This section lists the basic procedural steps for awarding assistance, beginning with the organizational components of the federal agency that has final approval authority for the application and ending with the lowest level at which federal resources are expended. Also indicated is whether assistance passes through the initial applicant for further distribution by intermediate level applicants to groups or individuals in the private sector.

Accepted applications are subject to evaluation by the headquarters, regional, local or district office to determine the feasibility of the proposed project to include consistency with federal and individual agency policies concerning its scope and purpose. Grant payments may be made by a letter of credit, advance by treasury check, or reimbursement by treasury check. Awards may be made by the headquarters office directly to the applicant, an agency field office, a regional office, or by an authorized county office.

Example: Institutions act as disbursing agents for the Department of Education. The institution that the student attends calculates and disburses the Federal Pell Grant, using a payment schedule developed by the Department of Education that determines the amount of the award based on the student's expected family contribution, cost of attendance, and enrollment status.


When available, this section indicates the deadlines for applications to the funding agency which will be stated in terms of the date(s) or between what dates the application should be received. Reference is made to new applications, continuations, renewals, and supplementals. Application deadline information is also indicated in the Deadlines Index, in the agency's program guidelines, or announced in the Federal Register. Where not available, applicants should contact the funding agency for deadline information.

Example: Contact the program office for deadlines.

Range of Approval or Disapproval Time

This section informs the applicant of the representative range of time required for the application to be processed (in terms of days or months) at the federal level.

Example: Approximately 2 to 4 weeks.


In some cases, there are no provisions for appeal. Where applicable, this section discusses appeal procedures or allowable rework time for resubmission of applications to be processed by the funding agency. Appeal procedures vary with individual programs and are either listed in this section or applicants are referred to appeal procedures documented in the relevant Code of Federal Regulations (CFR).

Example: An institution, on the basis of supplemental documentation, may rule that an applicant is self-supporting, even though under the standard criteria, the applicant would normally be considered financially dependent on his or her parents. An institution may adjust on a case-by-case basis a student's data elements used to calculate his or her EFC and cost of attendance due to unusual circumstances documented by the institution.


This section advises the applicant as to whether renewals or extensions of applications are available and indicates the appropriate procedures to follow. In some instances, renewal procedures may be the same as for the application procedure, e.g., for projects of a non-continuing nature renewals will be treated as new, competing applications; for projects of an ongoing nature, renewals may be given annually.

Example: Students who have applied in the previous award year may be eligible to complete a paper or electronic renewal application which contains preprinted student data and requires students only to update certain information. However, eligibility is still annually determined.

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Formula and Matching Requirements

This section indicates the formula and matching requirements prescribed in the allocation of funds or maintenance of effort requirements. A formula may be based on population, per capita income, and other statistical factors. Applicants are informed whether there are any matching requirements to be met when participating in the cost of a project.

In general, the matching share represents that portion of the project costs not borne by the federal government. Usually, a minimum percentage for matching share is prescribed by program legislation, and matching share requirements are included in the grant agreement. Attachment F of OMB Circular No. A-102 sets forth the criteria and procedures for the evaluation of matching share requirements which may be cash or in-kind contributions made by State and local governments or other agencies, institutions, private organizations, or individuals to satisfy matching requirements of Federal grants or loans.

Cash contributions represent the grantees' cash outlay, including the outlay of money contributed to the grantee by other public agencies, institutions, private organizations, or individuals. When authorized by federal regulation, federal funds received from other grants may be considered as the grantees' cash contribution.

In-kind contributions represent the value of non-cash contributions provided by the grantee, other public agencies and institutions, private organizations or individuals. In-kind contributions may consist of charges for real property and equipment, and value of goods and services directly benefiting and specifically identifiable to the grant program. When authorized by federal legislation, property purchased with federal funds may be considered as grantees' in-kind contribution.

Maintenance of effort (MOE) is a requirement contained in certain legislation, regulations, or administrative policies stating that a grantee must maintain a specified level of financial effort in a specific area in order to receive federal grant funds. In addition, the federal grant funds may be used only to supplement, not supplant, the level of grantee funds. Programs that have maintenance of effort requirements and have total allocations over $100 million (current FY) should have the following statement in this section: "This program has maintenance of effort (MOE) requirements, see funding agency for further details."

Example: The 2001-2002 Federal Pell Grant eligibility determinations are based on Part F of the HEA, as amended. This national need analysis formula determines financial eligibility for Federal Pell grants and other federal student aid and is applied uniformly to all applicants. This national need analysis formula determines a student's "expected family contribution" (EFC). The fundamental elements of this need analysis formula are the parents' and/or the student's income and assets (excluding home), the family's household size, and the number of family members attending postsecondary institutions. The EFC is determined as the sum of: (1) A percentage assessment of net income (remaining income after subtracting allowances for basic living expenses) and (2) a percentage assessment of net assets, other than a home, (remaining assets after subtracting an asset protection allowance).

Length and Time Phasing of Assistance

This section indicates the time period during which the assistance is normally available, whether there are any restrictions placed on the time permitted to use the funds awarded, and the timing of disbursement of the assistance, e.g., lump sum, annually, quarterly, or as required.

Example: Students are currently limited to one Federal Pell Grant during any award year (July 1 through June 30). There is no funding for students to receive a second Federal Pell Grant during a single award year. Funds for one Federal Pell Grant are usually disbursed at least twice during an award year. Students may only receive a Federal Pell Grant until they have received a bachelor's degree.

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This section indicates whether program reports, expenditure reports, cash reports or performance monitoring is required by the federal funding agency, and specifies at what time intervals (monthly, annually, etc.) this must be accomplished.

Example: Institutions will be required to furnish reports, periodically, on the disbursement of funds, as well as to furnish any other reports the Secretary requires. No reports are required of students.


This section discusses audits required by the federal agency. The procedures and requirements for State and local governments and nonprofit entities are set forth in OMB Circular No. A-133.
These requirements pertain to awards made within the respective State's fiscal year. Not the federal fiscal year, as some State and local governments may use the calendar year or other variation of time span designated as the fiscal year period, rather than that commonly known as the Federal fiscal year (from October 1st through September 30th).

Example: Annual audits will be made.


This section indicates the record retention requirements and the type of records the federal agency may require. Not included are the normally imposed requirements of the General Accounting Office. For programs falling under the purview of OMB Circular No. A-102, record retention is set forth in Attachment C. For other programs, record retention is governed by the funding agency's requirements.

Example: All records pertaining to the eligibility of each Federal Pell Grant recipient and all fiscal management records must be maintained by the institutions for a period of 3 years or until an acceptable audit has been completed, whichever is later. Selected students will have the information on their applications verified.

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Account Identification

This 11-digit budget account identification code represents the account which funds a particular program. This code should be consistent with the code given for the program area as specified in Appendix III of the Budget of the United States Government. (See Appendix III for further information on the meaning of the 11 digits of this code.)

Example: 91-0200-0-1-502.


The dollar amounts listed in this section represent obligations for the past fiscal year (PY), estimates for the current fiscal year (CY), and estimates for the budget fiscal year (BY) as reported by the federal agencies. In each succeeding edition of the Catalog, the dollar amounts are revised to reflect changes, which may result from supplemental appropriations or amendments. Each program indicates what the obligation figures represent in terms of the type of assistance provided. Obligations for non-financial assistance programs indicate the administrative expenses involved in the operation of a program as an indication of the magnitude of the services being provided, or the items involved in obligations.

Example: (Grants) FY 01 $7,639,717,000; FY 02 est $8,756,000,000; and FY 03 est $9,756,000,000.

Range and Average of Financial Assistance

This section lists the representative range (smallest to largest) of the amount of financial assistance available. These figures are based upon funds awarded in the past fiscal year and the current fiscal year to date. Also indicated is an approximate average amount of awards which were made in the past and current fiscal years.

Example: Grants ranged from $400 to $3,300 in fiscal year 2001. Average award: $2,057 in fiscal year 2001.

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This section briefly describes the accomplishments of a program using quantitative data, focusing on program output, results achieved, or services rendered during the past fiscal year, the current fiscal year, and projections for the coming fiscal year.

Example: Approximately 3,853,000 students received Federal Pell grants during fiscal year 2001.

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This section lists the title, number, and price of guidelines, handbooks, manuals, and other officially published information pertinent to a program. Since program regulations are published first in the Federal Register (FR) and later in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), citations to the CFR are listed.

Example: The Federal Pell Grant Expected Family Contribution formula is set forth in Part F of the Higher Education Act of 1965 as amended. Regulations governing administration of the Pell Grant Program are found in 34 CFR 600, 668, and 690. The Student Guide; Free Application for Federal Student Aid (no charge); "The Expected Family Contribution Formula"; "The Student Financial Aid Handbook."

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Regional or Local Office

This section lists the agency contact person, address and telephone number of the federal regional or local Office(s) to be contacted for detailed information regarding a program such as:

  1. Current availability of funds, and the likelihood of receiving assistance within a given period.
  2. Pre-application and application forms which are required.
  3. Whether a pre-application conference is recommended.
  4. Assistance available in preparation of applications.
  5. Whether funding decisions are made at the headquarters, regional or the local level.
  6. Application renewal procedures (including continuations and supplementals) or appeal procedures for rejected applications.
  7. Recently published program guidelines and material.

However, for many federal programs, this section will instruct the applicant to consult Appendix IV of the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance (Agency Regional and Local Office Addresses) due to the vast number of regional and local office contacts for most agencies. For those agencies with fewer contacts, the actual information will be provided in this section.

Example: Federal Student Aid Information Center. Telephone: 1-800-433-3243. Regional Director, Office of Student Financial Assistance, the Director of Student Financial Aid at the institution the student wishes to attend, high school guidance counselors, or directors of State agencies.

Headquarters Office

This section lists names and addresses of the office at the headquarters level with direct operational responsibility for managing a program. A telephone number is provided in cases where a regional or local office is not normally able to answer detailed inquiries concerning a program. Also listed are the name(s) and telephone number(s) of the information contact person(s) who can provide additional program information to applicants.

Example: Division of Policy Development, Office of Student Financial Assistance, Department of Education, 400 Maryland Avenue, SW., ROB-3, Washington, DC 20202. Telephone: (800) 433-3243.

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This section indicates the different types of projects, which have been funded in the past. Only projects funded under "Project Grants" or "Direct Payments for Specified Use" should be listed here. The examples give potential applicants an idea of the types of projects that may be accepted for funding. The agency should list at least five examples of the most recently funded projects.

Example (Fictional): Awards are made only for staffing of facilities offering services for children.

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This section indicates the criteria used by the federal granting agency to evaluate proposals in order to inform potential applicants of the application review process and the criteria used to award funds for projects.

Example: The Expected Family Contribution formula is set forth in Part F of the Higher Education Act of 1965, as amended.

NOTE:  The U.S. Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance is the official directory of over 1500 U.S. Federal programs that provide assistance to American organizations, States, institutions, and individuals. It can be found in most main public libraries or ordered from the U.S. Government Printing Office (GPO).

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Understanding the Federal Program Descriptions