How to use the FAFSA calculator to estimate financial aid

Find out how much money your family might have to fork over to pay for school.

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The Department of Education’s FAFSA calculator — called the FAFSA4caster — allows you to calculate how much federal aid you might receive ahead of time. This tool can help you narrow down your college choices by showing which you likely can — and can’t — afford. However, it can’t predict what nonfederal aid you might receive from a school.

What is the FAFSA4caster?

The FAFSA4caster is a calculator you can use to predict how much federal financial aid you can expect to receive — regardless of where you decide to go to school. It’s available on the Federal Student Aid (FSA) website and is free to use.

This calculator can help you compare schools by price. Rather than simply telling you the school’s cost of attendance (COA), this tool tells you how much you might actually pay, depending on your family’s finances.

The FSA recommends using it around your junior year of high school when you’re starting to think about college but aren’t ready to submit the FAFSA.

What does it tell me?

You can get the following information by using the FAFSA4caster:

  • Estimated Federal Pell Grant amount
  • Estimated Federal Work-Study amount
  • Maximum Direct Subsidized Loan you’re eligible for
  • Maximum Direct Unsubsidized Loan you’re eligible for
  • Expected family contribution (EFC)
  • School’s net cost

The FAFSA4caster only calculates federal aid for the student

In other words, it doesn’t calculate university scholarships and grants, Parent PLUS Loans or private loans. While you can include those numbers in the FAFSA4caster, they’re not estimated for you.

To get a more accurate picture, you might want to look at the school’s financial aid program as well. Some meet 100% of your financial need, meaning you likely only have to pay the EFC if you choose to attend.

How to use the FAFSA4caster in 5 steps

The FAFSA4caster is available on the FSA website. The first two steps help the calculator estimate your eligibility for federal aid programs, such as Pell Grants and federal student loans. The last two steps allow you to review your potential federal aid awards and provide information about other resources you might use to pay for school.

Step 1: Answer questions about yourself.

You’ll first be asked to answer basic questions about yourself, which may include:

  1. Are you a US citizen?
  2. What is your date of birth?
  3. What is your marital status?
  4. When you begin college, what will be your grade level?
  5. Do you have children or other dependents that you support?
  6. How many people are in your household?
  7. While you are in college, how many people in your household will be college students?
  8. What was your adjusted gross income from the most recent tax return?
  9. What is your total current balance of cash, savings and checking accounts?
  10. What is the net worth of your investments, including real estate that isn’t your primary home?
  11. What is the net worth of your current businesses and/or investment farms?
  12. What is your legal state of residence?

You also might have to answer questions about military service and your relationship with your parents or guardians.

Step 2: Answer questions about your parents.

You’ll only see this section if the FSA considers you a dependent student. You might want to ask your parents for help answering these questions:

  1. As of today, what is the marital status of your parents?
  2. How old are your parents?
  3. How many people are in your parents’ household?
  4. While you are in college, how many people in your or your parent’s household will be college students — including yourself?
  5. Have you or your parents filed taxes recently?
  6. What was your parents’ adjusted gross income from the most recent tax return?
  7. What is your parents’ total current balance of cash, savings and checking accounts?
  8. What is the net worth of your parents’ current businesses and investment farms?
  9. What is your parents’ state of legal residence?

Once you’ve finished answering questions about yourself and your family, click Submit.

Step 3: Fill out the College Cost Worksheet.

This next step covers the cost of the school you’re considering:

  1. Provide the name of a college. This could be one you’ve already applied to or are just considering.
  2. Enter the amount it will cost to attend this school. Don’t know the COA? Use the link to look it up on the College Scorecard website. Or visit the school’s financial aid website to get an estimate of the COA for the upcoming academic year.
  3. Answer questions about other financial aid awards. Review your Pell Grant award, if eligible. Enter any state, college or outside scholarship amounts you think you’ll receive.
  4. Review your work-study and student loan eligibility. If you know how much work-study you’ll receive from your school or student loans you plan on taking out, enter the amount. Click Calculate.

Step 4: Answer questions about additional financial resources.

This section allows you to provide information on other resources you plan on using to pay for college. This might include Parent PLUS Loans your family plans on taking out or any college savings.

Click Recalculate.

Step 5: Review the results.

It’s not totally obvious how to read the results — you won’t be taken to a page with a breakdown. Here’s how to interpret that last page:

  • Total Aid Available. This includes all estimated federal aid awards, as well as any outside scholarships and grants you provided in the worksheet.
  • Difference. This is the net cost of your school — the total aid available subtracted from the school’s COA you entered.
  • Estimated EFC. At the bottom in fine print is the amount the FSA estimates your family can afford to contribute toward your education for the upcoming school year.

Why should I use the FAFSA4caster?

You might want to use the FAFSA4caster for several reasons, including:

  • Narrow down your choices. Using this calculator for several different schools and comparing the results can help you determine which are in your price range and which will land you deep in debt.
  • Know how much outside aid you need. Use your estimated EFC and school’s net cost to help you figure out how much funding you might need to get through university scholarships and grants or outside aid.
  • Maximize your eligibility for aid. Playing around with this calculator can help you and your family understand how your assets affect your EFC. This can also help with financial planning. For example, paying off big bills right before filling out the FAFSA might help you qualify for more aid since it reduces your bank account balances.

Bottom line

The FAFSA4caster can give you an estimate of how much financial aid you’ll receive from the government before actually filling out the FAFSA. It can also tell you how much your family might need to fork over for school before you apply.

You can learn more about how to pay for school by reading our guide to student loans.

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