If you could see how much financial aid you’ll get for college, would you want to? The FAFSA4caster is a free tool from the Department of Education to estimate your federal financial aid before you submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). You can use the tool to compare the costs of several colleges in addition to working out strategies to get the most financial aid.
With 55 percent of parents feeling confident in their ability to meet the future cost of their children’s college education, according to Sallie Mae’s How America Saves for College study, the FAFSA4caster is a helpful tool to determine just how ready you are.
FAFSA4Caster Estimates How Much Financial Aid You’ll Receive
The FAFSA4caster estimates how much federal aid you can expect to receive from the U.S. government. It will help you understand what options are available to you after you provide some basic information. Your estimate will be shown on a “College Cost Worksheet” where you can estimate other aid and savings that are going toward your education.
FAFSA4caster is a great way to plan ahead for college because it gives you a free yearly estimate of your federal aid eligibility.
How to Use the FAFSA4caster
Set aside 20 to 30 minutes and go to fafsa.ed.gov. Once there, you’ll answer questions related to finances and other information in order to estimate how much federal aid you should receive.
It’s a good idea to have your tax information and bank statements handy so you can answer all the questions without interruption. It’s very important to answer every question even if you have to estimate. You can also access the “Help and Hints” section if you need help along the way. The plus side is that this isn’t as detailed or complex as the FAFSA.
You’ll need to enter the following into the FAFSA4caster:
- Your birthday
- Citizenship status
- Marital status
- Adjusted gross income for you and your parent
- Your asset net worth
- Your Federal tax information or tax returns, including W-2 information, for yourself, for your spouse if you are married, and for your parents if you are a dependent student
- Information on savings, investments, and business and farm assets for yourself (and for your parents if you are a dependent student)
What Information the FAFSA4caster Provides
The FAFSA4caster shows a worksheet to help you determine the total cost of attending your chosen school. Here’s what the worksheet will show:
- At the top, you’ll enter the school’s total cost of attendance. Check out College Navigator to look up the cost if you don’t have it on hand.
- Then, you’ll see several sources of college funding. This includes your Federal Pell Grant amount, Federal Work-Study amount based on the national average of $1,465, and the maximum Direct Subsidized Loan and Direct Unsubsidized Loan eligibility.
- After that, you can enter all of the scholarships, state and college aid you plan on getting.
- Click “Calculate.” This is when the FAFSA4caster does its magic to create a total of the cost, the aid you entered, and the difference. Your estimated Expected Family Contribution (EFC) also appears, which is a measure of your family’s financial strength. Your family’s income (taxed and untaxed), assets, and benefits are all taken into account and used in the formula, which is established by law.
- Use the tool to compare schools by adjusting the cost to attend and the amount of aid from the school, etc. so you can compare your total out-of-pocket costs. You can also use the College Scorecard to help compare schools.
How the FAFSA4caster Works
Similarly to the FAFSA, the FAFSA4caster takes a number of factors into account including income, age, marital status, school year, state, family members currently in college and total family size. The total assets are estimated based on income. You can also add in other grants and scholarships you know you’re going to receive in addition to a Parent PLUS loan. This will give you a whole picture of your federal student aid package.
How to Understand Your FAFSA4caster Results
After you select “Calculate,” you’ll see the cost of attending your school and the total aid you’re eligible for. The FAFSA4caster will also show you the difference between the two, which translates to how much money you’ll have to spend out of pocket either with cash or private loans.
Your EFC, which might be higher or lower than the difference shown, will show below the word “Difference.” Use this information to compare the costs of attending in-state and out-of-state schools. If the difference is more than you can comfortably pay, then you’ll want to consider attending a less expensive school.
How to Give Yourself the Best Financial Aid Outcome
You can use the FAFSA4caster to find ways to reduce your EFC in legal ways. This can include paying your bills before the October 1 FAFSA date or finding ways to restructure your assets to lower your overall EFC. A financial advisor may be able to help you understand how to maximize your eligibility for financial aid.
Other ways to maximize your eligibility:
- Don’t overestimate your income. Make sure you report your net income and not your gross income.
- Sell stocks and bonds during your child’s sophomore year of high school.
- Don’t use your retirement fund to pay for school, because these funds are sheltered from the analysis process. You might end up converting them into an included asset if you withdraw them before the application is filed.
- Don’t put any assets in your children’s names and don’t pay your children a salary as part of a family business.
Who Should Use the FAFSA4caster
If you’re not ready to submit your FAFSA form, then the FAFSA4caster is right for you. This can be anyone as young as middle schoolers to high school juniors. Parents can also use it to get estimates and test out the tool for different scenarios such as an increase or decrease in salary or a sudden windfall of cash. Adult students can also use it to see what they might receive.
How Accurate Is the FAFSA4caster?
Overall, the FAFSA4caster is generally an accurate predictor of the amount of federal aid you’re eligible for based on your EFC such as Pell Grants. It doesn’t take into account state- or institution-based aid, which means it may not be entirely accurate if you’ve qualified for either of these sources of funding. Also, the tool uses the national average for work-study funds, but you might receive more or less than that.
Remember that the FAFSA4caster is only an estimate. There are other factors like the levels of funding a school receives or even the targets for enrollment that can affect your aid eligibility. If your household has drastic changes to your finances including high medical expenses or a sudden windfall of cash, this can affect your aid eligibility.
Other Student Aid Forecasting Tools
There are several other options for finding a projection of your student aid. Here are some of them:
- A College’s Net Price Calculator
- This option gives you a solid idea of the grants, scholarships, and loans you’ll get from your school of choice. This will be based on historical financial aid data from the school.
- The different might end up being in the thousands of dollars based on the amount of aid the school is willing to provide.
- The detail of these calculators can vary, though, because the school sets the standards themselves.
- You’ll need to input yours and your parent’s income tax returns as well as untaxed income information. You’ll also need your bank and investment earnings statements. As with all calculators and tools like this, the more accurate your entries, then the more accurate your results.
- A Financial Aid Counselor
- A financial aid counselor is someone at the school who can help determine your aid eligibility. It’s wise to speak with someone like this, because he or she may catch opportunities for aid that the automated tools missed.
- Use the FAFSA4caster in combination with a net price calculator and then talk to a financial aid counselor for the most accurate estimate possible.
The Bottom Line: It’s Wise to Plan How You’ll Pay for College
No matter what results you get out of the FAFSA4caster, even if it says you don’t qualify for aid, you should still submit the FAFSA. The FAFSA will pick up eligibility that the calculator may miss and it protects you for the future. Submitting it now means that if your family’s financial situation changes and you need aid later on, then you’ll be eligible. If you don’t submit, then you’ll be out of luck. Here are the FAFSA deadlines.
It’s wise to plan how you’re going to pay for college as early as possible. Use the FAFSA4caster as soon as you’d like to strategize how you’ll pay for college and to find out which colleges you can afford. And don’t forget to mark your October 1 on your calendar so you can get your FAFSA in on time.