Using the Department of Education's FAFSA Calculator

Tips for Using the Dept. of Education's FAFSA Calculator

If you have already completed the FAFSA and are waiting for your financial aid award letters to determine how much financial aid you or your child might be eligible to receive, there is a useful tool which can help you estimate those amounts now so you can do some financial planning.

The U.S. Department of Education offers a handy FAFSA calculator, known as the FAFSA4caster. By taking 20 to 30 minutes to plug in some basic data from your tax returns, as well as some information about your assets, the site will estimate your eligibility for federal student aid.

The FAFSA4caster is free to use, encrypted for the safety of your personal information, and helpful for anyone who is trying to figure out how to pay for college. It can be used by those who have already completed the FAFSA, not yet completed the FAFSA, high school juniors, and adult students.

Parents of students as young as middle school can also use the tool to receive early estimates, create scenarios based on future earnings, and then establish college funding strategies so there is enough time left to execute them.

Use the calculator to determine whether you really are or are not eligible for federal financial aid, so you won’t lose out by adhering to mistaken assumptions about your income level. Remember that once you are ready to apply for college and financial aid, you must still complete a FAFSA.

When using the FAFSA4caster, you will answer financial and other questions that will help estimate your federal student aid eligibility. Have the following information available to make the process easier:

  • The student’s Social Security number.
  • The student's and parents’ last W-2 forms.
  • The student's and parents’ last tax return.
  • Current bank and investment statements.
  • Current mortgage summary.

You may be able to answer most of the questions easily, but some of the questions may ask you to reference personal records, such as your federal tax information or bank statements. There is a “Help and Hints” section to provide guidance as you move through the form. Be sure to answer all the questions on FAFSA4caster, even if you have to estimate or guess.

After you finish inputting your information, the tool will display a "College Cost Worksheet" to help you determine the net cost of attending your chosen school. Because the FAFSA4caster does not calculate state or institutional aid or add in any private scholarships you might receive, you can add estimated amounts of other student aid and savings that can go towards your college education to get a fuller picture of your financial aid eligibility. Here is what you can expect to see:

  • At the top of the page, you can enter a school’s cost of attendance from its website or the College Navigator.
  • The FAFSA4caster will then indicate your estimated Federal Pell Grant amount (if any), Federal Work-Study amount (based on the national average), and maximum Direct Subsidized Loan and Direct Unsubsidized Loan eligibility.
  • Fill in the fields for the amounts of state and college aid and private scholarships you anticipate receiving.
  • Click on “Calculate,” and the FAFSA4caster will summarize the cost, total estimated aid, and the difference, or net cost. Your estimated Expected Family Contribution (EFC) will also be shown. You can compare schools by changing the cost of attendance, deleting state aid if you will be an out-of-state student at a particular school, altering the amount of aid available from the school, and so on.

    If you have not yet completed the FAFSA, or are preparing to complete a FAFSA for the very first time, the FAFSA4caster serves as a great warm-up tool, since many of the questions are identical. Preparing in advance can help prevent errors that could result in the loss of potential funds your student might receive.

    Families can start thinking about what they can do now to get all the information compiled and be prepared for the actual application. Don't wait until the last minute! Get your questions answered now and make sure you file your real FAFSA as soon as possible.