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.
Here’s what you should know about the tool — and what to do after you get your results:
How the FAFSA4caster works
Like the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, the FAFSA4caster analyzes your household income and assets to determine your expected family contribution, or EFC. You can use estimates for those amounts, but the more accurate the information you provide, the more accurate your results will be. Your aid estimate will include funding through Stafford 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.
How to use the FAFSA4caster
On the first page of the tool, you’ll be asked for basic personal and financial information. For most students, that’ll include your birthday, citizenship and marital status, and adjusted gross income for yourself and a parent. There’s also a section for “asset net worth,” which will populate automatically with an estimate based on income. If you have bank statements and investment information on hand, though, you can update that figure and get more accurate results.
On the next page, you’ll see your projected Pell Grant award and the national average award amount for work-study funds — which is $1,465 — as well as your maximum Stafford loan amounts. Loan amounts will include both subsidized and unsubsidized loans. Once you select “Calculate,” you’ll see your EFC.
Understanding your results
After selecting “Calculate,” you’ll see 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’d 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 considered 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 than that.
The bottom line: 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 forecasting tools
Net price calculators
Unlike the FAFSA4caster, a college’s net price calculator can give you a concrete idea of the loans, scholarships and grants you may get from a specific school. For most net price calculators, your results will be based on historical financial aid data from that school.
“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.
Financial aid counselors
In the end, the FAFSA4caster and net price calculators can provide only estimates. External factors, like funding levels or changing enrollment goals, could affect the aid you receive at different schools.
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.
For more information, check out NerdWallet’s FAFSA guide.