The Federal Student Aid Estimator, previously known as the FAFSA4caster, is a tool that students can use to receive an estimate of what their federal student aid could be.

Although the tool won’t be able to predict your exact financial assistance package, it can help you prepare for when you fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The Federal Student Aid Estimator takes less than 10 minutes to use. Results are based on the data you input into the tool.

What is the Federal Student Aid Estimator?

The Federal Student Aid Estimator is an online tool that calculates an estimated expected family contribution (EFC) for students entering college — essentially an abridged version of the FAFSA. This can help students determine whether they may be eligible for Pell Grants and other federal financial aid.

You won’t know your family’s exact EFC until you complete the FAFSA, which uses a more comprehensive look at your family’s finances and household details.

Who should use the Federal Student Aid Estimator?

Anyone planning to use federal financial aid to pay for college should consider using the Federal Student Aid Estimator.

Even if you’re a few years out from your first college tuition bill, you can use the estimator to see what you can expect to pay. The estimate allows you to save money if necessary or make more informed decisions about the colleges you consider.

Nothing you input is saved or reported to the government, and it takes much less time than the FAFSA — five to 10 minutes on average.

How do you fill out the Federal Student Aid Estimator?

The U.S. Department of Education supplies the Federal Student Aid Estimator, which makes the estimator free to use. Like the FAFSA, your household income and assets will be analyzed to determine the amount of aid you could receive. You can find the Federal Student Aid Estimator on the Federal Student Aid website.

The tool will guide you through these steps:

  1. Fill out personal information: You’ll be asked for your date of birth, marital status, state of residence and year when you will be in college.
  2. Fill out household information: there will also be questions about your household size, whether you have dependents, the age of your primary parent or guardian, and the net worth of your assets.
  3. Fill out income and asset details: You’ll need information like your household income in the last tax year and the total value of household assets.
  4. Review projected financial aid: Once you have answered the questions, the tool will automatically populate your answers and estimate your aid based on your answers to income and the other questions listed. You’ll then be able to review your projected federal student aid awards, including EFC, and potential dollar amounts for Pell Grants, federal student loans and federal work-study. Lastly, you’ll be able to see your maximum direct loan amounts in both subsidized and unsubsidized loans.

How do you read your results from the Federal Student Aid Estimator?

Once you fill out the questions from the Federal Student Aid Estimator, the last page will show you the estimated results. The results will show you the following:

  • Your estimated EFC amount, which is used to determine your federal student aid eligibility based on your family’s ability to contribute towards college tuition.
  • How your EFC number impacts the amount of federal student aid you may receive.
  • The different types of need-based financial aid you’re eligible for. This includes any grants, federal work-study, and subsidized and unsubsidized loans.
  • The combined total estimated federal aid you’re eligible for.

The estimator’s results show a fairly accurate amount of the federal aid you’re likely eligible for based on your EFC. However, there are limitations. For example, the tool does not account for aid provided by your state or institution and uses the national average to calculate your work-study funds. The actual amount you receive may be higher or lower.

Is the Federal Student Aid Estimator accurate?

The Federal Student Aid Estimator is an estimation based on self-reported information. There’s a chance that you might not have all the right information, and the actual FAFSA includes much more detailed questions that may impact your EFC. However, the simulation can give you a starting point in determining your financial need.

The only way to find out your accurate EFC is to complete the FAFSA when it opens Oct. 1 every year. The sooner you complete the FAFSA, the more need-based aid you can expect to receive. Applying sooner also gives you the chance to look for other types of free money in private scholarships and grants.

The bottom line

The Federal Student Aid Estimator is a great free tool for students to plan and understand the amount of financial aid they’ll need for college tuition. Based on your ECF, income, family size, and other factors, the tool analyzes the numbers to determine a fairly accurate estimate of the amount of federal aid students are eligible for. While the tool isn’t completely accurate, it can give you a good idea of how to prepare for education expenses.