The FAFSA4caster estimates your federal financial aid award before you apply, helping you to compare the cost of attendance at multiple colleges. Plus, you can take steps to maximize the amount of financial aid you receive.
Using this FAFSA estimator is just a first step, but a key one no less. Let’s look at how it works.
For many of us, financial aid is a big factor when deciding where to go to school. In fact, more than 18.9 million students applied for federal financial assistance for the 2017-2018 school year, the most recent data available.
Unfortunately, you don’t get to see your financial aid award until months after you apply — but that’s where the FAFSA4Caster comes in handy. You can begin using it as early as middle school, but it’s likely to be more accurate the closer you are to your junior and senior years of high school.
The tool projects your expected family contribution (EFC), or the amount your school anticipates you can afford to put toward its cost of attendance. If your EFC is lower than the cost of tuition, you could qualify for federal financial aid to fill in the gap. Plus, you could get other aid in the form of scholarships or college grants.
Once the FAFSA estimator reveals your potential EFC, you’ll have a sense of how much you’ll need to pay out of pocket. If your EFC is higher than you think your family can handle, you might reconsider applying to expensive schools. By comparing the cost of attendance at various colleges, you can make a more informed choice about where to apply.
The FAFSA4Caster tool is an extremely slimmed-down version of the FAFSA. You won’t have to go into detail about tax information, but you do need to enter your or your parents’ gross income from the previous year. You’ll also enter the worth of your assets, if applicable.
After collecting this information, you can estimate your financial aid in three steps.
Step 1: Indicate your citizenship
You need to be a U.S. citizen or eligible noncitizen to qualify for federal aid.
Step 2: Enter basic information about yourself and your parents
Next, you’ll enter data about yourself and your parents. This includes your date of birth, marital status and household size. You’ll also state how much income you and your parents earned last year, as well as the worth of any assets your family might have, such as a 529 college savings plan.
The more accurate your inputs, the more precise the tool’s outputs will be.
Step 3: Review your financial aid estimate
Once you enter the required information, the FAFSA4Caster will immediately predict your financial aid eligibility. It will indicate your eligibility for the following:
For Direct Loans and Pell Grants, the tool will show the maximum amount you’re eligible for. But for work study, you’ll just get an average, as in the example below. You won’t know the exact amount until you get your financial aid award letter.
Not only does this final page predict your financial aid, but it also works as an interactive calculator. You can enter the cost of a college you like and subtract your predicted financial aid from it. Plus, you can enter different values for state aid or scholarships if you’ve already earned some money for college.
By playing around with these calculations, you can compare your estimated net cost of attendance at various colleges. Instead of being in the dark about how much a college will cost, you’ll have a clearer sense of your tuition and other bills.
To pinpoint your costs and potential aid package at specific colleges, consider asking your college financial aid counselor about the school’s net price calculator. This tool will clarify what institution- and state-based aid might be available to a student of your specific means.
The FAFSA4Caster doesn’t just help you pick colleges based on affordability. You can also use the tool to get the most financial aid possible. For instance, your parents could lower their asset amounts by paying off bills or debt before applying for the FAFSA on Oct. 1, when the form becomes available for the following school year.
In other words, it’s possible to restructure your assets to lower your EFC. If you have a complicated financial situation, it could be worth consulting a personal financial advisor.
By investigating your EFC with this FAFSA estimator, you can make smart financial moves that could maximize your eligibility for financial aid.
Even if the FAFSA4Caster says you’re not eligible for any aid, you should still submit the FAFSA. Some students mistakenly think they’re not eligible for financial aid — perhaps they think mom and dad make too much money for the FAFSA — and they miss out on assistance because they never file an application.
Even if you’re not eligible now, filing the FAFSA is a safeguard in case your financial circumstances change in the future. Plus, many colleges look at the FAFSA to determine their own scholarships, and financial aid not based on need.
To get the most aid possible, make sure to file the FAFSA as soon as possible (Reminder: it opens on Oct. 1 every year). In the meantime, don’t forget to seek out scholarship opportunities to help lower the cost of college overall.
Note: The images above were taken from the FAFSA4Caster tool.
Andrew Pentis contributed to this report.
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