If you’re looking to get an idea of how much federal aid you can expect, the FAFSA4caster is your one-stop shop. But if you’re looking to get an estimate of your entire financial aid package, including state- and institution-based aid and scholarships, then it’s just the first stop in a longer journey.
» MORE: Your guide to financial aid
Here’s what you should know about the tool — and what to do after you get your results:
How the FAFSA4caster works
The FAFSA4caster is a free tool from the U.S. Department of Education that provides an early estimate of your federal student aid eligibility. Like the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, the FAFSA4caster analyzes your household income and assets to determine your expected family contribution or EFC.
» MORE: What is financial aid?
You can use estimates for those amounts, but the more specific information you can provide, the more accurate your results will be.
Your aid estimate will include funding through federal direct loans, federal work-study and Pell Grants if you’re eligible for them. You can also add other grants and scholarships as well as a Parent PLUS loan to get a more complete picture of your projected student aid.
Your aid estimate will include funding through federal direct loans, federal work-study and Pell Grants if you’re eligible for them.
» MORE: What is need-based aid?
How to use the FAFSA4caster
Step 1: Input your information
On the first page of the tool, you’ll be asked for basic personal and financial information including:
• Your birthday.
• Citizenship status.
• Marital status.
There will also be a section for “Asset net worth,” which automatically populates and is estimated based on income. If you have bank statements and investment information on hand, though, you can update that figure and get more accurate results.
Step 2: See possible financial aid
On the next page, you’ll see your projected Pell Grant award and the national average award amount for work-study funds, as well as your maximum direct loan amounts. Loan amounts will include both subsidized and unsubsidized loans.
» MORE: How to get a student loan
Step 3: Calculate
Once you select “Calculate,” you’ll get your results.
Understanding your results
After selecting “Calculate,” you’ll see three things:
• Your school’s cost of attendance.
• The total aid you’re eligible for — including grants, scholarships and federal loans — and the difference between the two, which tells you how much you would need to cover out of pocket or with private student loans.
• Your EFC, which can be higher or lower than that listed difference, will show directly below the word “Difference.”
The FAFSA4caster is a fairly accurate predictor of federal aid that’s based on your EFC, like Pell Grants. But it has its limitations.
The tool doesn’t account for institution- or state-based aid, for example. And, as noted earlier, the tool uses the national average for the amount of work-study funds, but the actual amount you receive could be higher or lower.
It’s best to take the FAFSA4caster’s results with a grain of salt and remember that it’s just one of the tools at your disposal.
Other ways to forecast college costs
“Many colleges will include merit scholarships and institutional grant programs that will complement the federal programs. In some cases, the difference may be thousands of dollars,” says Ann Whitmer, director of student financial services at Albion College in Michigan.
The level of financial detail that these calculators request can vary widely from school to school. At a minimum, you’ll need to provide student and parent income tax returns and untaxed income information as well as bank and investment earnings statements. As a general rule, the more information a net price calculator asks for, the more accurate the results will be.
Special financial or household circumstances, like drastic annual income fluctuations or high medical expenses, will have an impact on your aid, too.
“That’s not something a calculator would ask, but a lot of financial aid offices would take that into consideration when awarding aid,” says Meredith Barnhart, director of integrated communications at the Massachusetts Educational Financing Authority.
Given those limitations, it’s best to use the FAFSA4caster and net price calculators as guides and always talk directly with financial aid counselors at the schools you plan on applying to in order to discuss your aid eligibility.