How To Find The Best Health Insurance For College Students

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College students have a lot on their minds. They’re juggling classes, extracurricular activities and maybe even part-time jobs. In the midst of all this, it can be easy to forget about something as important as health insurance. However, college students need health insurance for a variety of reasons—including staying healthy and avoiding expensive medical bills.

But with all the different options out there, it can be hard to know which plan is right for you. So with that in mind, here are a few tips to help you find the best health insurance for a college student.

What Is Health Insurance for College Students?

Health insurance for students is designed to provide coverage for medical expenses they may incur while in school. It can help cover the cost of doctor’s visits, prescription medications, mental health services and more.

Even if a college student is relatively healthy, there’s always a chance they could get sick or injured while away at school. These medical bills could add significant debt to their plates, which is why health insurance is so important.

Health Insurance Options for College Students

College students have eight primary options when it comes to health insurance. We’ve outlined the pros and cons of each below, so you can weigh your choices carefully before making a decision.

Parent’s health insurance plan

Students can stay on a parent’s health insurance plan until age 26—even if they’re not a dependent on their tax return. For many students, this is the easiest and best student health insurance.

However, there may be some instances in which this isn’t ideal. For example, HMO plans typically require individuals to receive care from a network of providers. If a parent has an HMO and a student is going to college out of state, there may not be any in-network providers in that area. So the student may have to explore other options.

That said, if a parent has a PPO—or can switch to one—a student may be able to stay on their plan and still have adequate coverage. PPOs have more flexibility and generally allow you to go out-of-network if you’re willing to pay a higher deductible, coinsurance or copay.

Pros

  • Usually the most affordable option
  • Students can stay on their parent’s plan until age 26
  • May not cost extra if the parent already has a family plan

Cons

  • May not have any in-network providers if you go to college out of state

School-sponsored student health plans

Many colleges and universities have student health insurance plans. These plans can be a great option for students, as they’re often more affordable than private health insurance.

Most school-sponsored plans comply with the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which means they cover the 10 essential health benefits: doctor’s visits, emergency services, hospitalizations, prescription drug coverage, pregnancy and childbirth, mental health services and more.

You can also lump the price into your tuition and fees, which means you don’t have to worry about paying monthly premiums while you’re in school. But on the other hand, you could end up paying interest on your premiums if you add your student health insurance plan into your student loans.

To see if your school offers a student health insurance plan or student health plan, visit your school’s website or contact the student affairs office for more information.

Pros

  • May be more affordable than getting health insurance through the marketplace
  • Good for on-campus care
  • Price is lumped in with tuition and fees, so you don’t have to worry about monthly premiums

Cons

  • May lose coverage when the semester or the school year ends
  • Could pay interest on premiums if they’re rolled into student loans

Health insurance through a spouse or domestic partner

If you happen to be married or in a domestic partnership, you may be eligible to enroll in your spouse or partner’s health insurance plan. This is usually another affordable way to get health insurance since employers pay most of an employee’s health costs.

Pros

  • Typically comes with comprehensive coverage options
  • Spouse’s employer pays more than half of health care costs
  • Having one plan means you don’t have to understand the specifics of multiple health plans and deal with two companies

Cons

  • You have to be married or in a domestic partnership to qualify
  • Your coverage will be tied to your spouse or partner’s employment

Health insurance plan through a job

Plan on working while in school? Companies like Chipotle, Costco, Lowes, REI, Starbucks and UPS all offer health insurance to part-time employees. This could be a good way for a student to get affordable health insurance while in college. Plus, many employers subsidize premiums, making it a more affordable option than getting health insurance through a private insurer.

Pros

  • Many part-time employers offer health insurance to employees
  • Can be a good option if you plan on working while in college
  • Gets you accustomed to having your own health insurance before you get married or have a family later

Cons

  • May only be eligible if you work a certain number of hours per week
  • Would lose coverage if you needed to quit your job to focus on school
  • Can be more expensive than staying on your parents’ plan

Affordable Care Act (ACA) health insurance

Another way to get health insurance as a college student is through the Affordable Care Act marketplace. All ACA plans cover preventative services, pre-existing conditions and the 10 essential health benefits:

  • Ambulatory patient/outpatient services
  • Emergency services
  • Hospitalization
  • Laboratory services
  • Maternity and newborn care
  • Mental health and substance use disorders, including behavioral health treatment
  • Pediatric services, including vision and oral care
  • Prescription drugs
  • Preventive and wellness services and chronic disease management
  • Rehabilitative and habilitative services and devices

You can purchase an ACA health insurance plan during open enrollment, which begins on Nov. 1 and ends on Jan. 15 in most states for 2023.

If you miss the open enrollment window, you may be eligible for special enrollment if you’ve recently experienced a qualifying event—such as losing your parents’ coverage, switching jobs or moving to a different ZIP code.

One disadvantage of ACA health insurance is that it can be expensive if you don’t qualify for subsidies. For instance, Bronze level plans are the most basic type of coverage you can get through Healthcare.gov. The average monthly cost for a Bronze plan for a 21-year-old is $313. A Silver plan, which costs more in premiums but less when you need care, averages $410 monthly for a 21-year-old.

In most cases, you won’t qualify for a subsidy if you file taxes as a dependent because your parents’ income is combined with yours. For financially strapped college students, this can be a tough pill to swallow.

Here is a health insurance marketplace calculator to see if you qualify for any subsidies.

Pros

  • Can be purchased through the federal marketplace or private insurers
  • Coverage is not tied to employment or school status
  • May qualify for subsidies

Cons

  • May be more expensive than other options
  • Subsidies generally aren’t available to dependents

ACA catastrophic plans

Catastrophic health insurance plans are designed to protect individuals from high medical costs in the event of an accident or illness. They’re available to anyone under age 30 (unless you qualify for a hardship waiver).

Although catastrophic plans are designed for large emergencies, they cover some routine care, such as three visits to a primary care physician per year. That said, they’re not ideal if you’re managing a chronic illness as your out-of-pocket costs may be too high.

Pros

  • May have lower premiums than other options
  • Good for emergency coverage
  • Can protect you from high medical costs in the event of an accident or illness

Cons

  • High deductibles
  • Not ideal if you have a chronic condition

Medicaid

If you’re a low-income student, you may be eligible for Medicaid—a government health insurance program. Requirements vary by state, but you may qualify for Medicaid if your income is below 138% of the federal poverty level. For 2022, this limit is $18,754 for a one-person household.

However, your eligibility is based on your household income, and if you file taxes as a dependent, this includes your parents’ pay. To see if you’re eligible for Medicaid, use Healthcare.gov’s health insurance calculator.

Pros

  • Can provide free or low-cost health insurance coverage to eligible students
  • Comprehensive coverage options

Cons

  • Eligibility is based on household income
  • May have a hard time finding in-network providers

Short-term medical insurance

If you need health insurance for a short period—such as during summer break or until ACA open enrollment begins—a short-term health insurance plan may be a good option.

Short-term health insurance plans are typically less expensive than private health insurance plans and usually provide coverage for up to a year with the change to extend coverage for another two years. However, they usually don’t cover pre-existing conditions, so it’s important to check with the insurer before you buy a policy to make sure you’re covered for the things you need.

Pros

  • Low, affordable premiums
  • Temporary coverage option
  • Usually more affordable than traditional health insurance

Cons

  • High deductibles can lead to big out-of-pocket costs
  • Coverage is limited to a specific timeframe
  • May not cover pre-existing medical conditions and doesn’t usually cover mental health, prescription drugs or maternity care

Do College Students Need Health Insurance?

Many states and colleges require students to have health insurance before they can begin classes. This is why many colleges offer school-sponsored plans for students who need coverage.

But even if a school doesn’t require it, having health insurance is an important part of staying healthy and safe in college.

You never know when you may break your arm playing intramural sports, catch the flu from your dorm mate or have your allergies flare up. Having the best health insurance for students can cover the cost of medical expenses like doctor visits, prescription medications and emergency services.

Find The Best Health Insurance Companies Of 2022

What Does Health Insurance for College Students Cost?

Here’s a look at the how much health insurance for college students costs:

  • The average cost for a student health insurance plan is about $2,915 for the 2022-2023 school year, according to a Forbes Advisor analysis of student health insurance plans at 10 universities.
  • The average annual cost for a 21-year-old in 2022 for an ACA Bronze plan was $3,756, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
  • The average cost for employer-sponsored insurance in 2021 was $5,969 a year, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The cost of health insurance for college students varies depending on several factors, such as the type of plan you choose, your age, where you live and whether you receive subsidies. If a student can’t stay on their parent’s plan, getting school-sponsored insurance may be the next most affordable option.

Student health insurance plan costs for the 2022-2023 school year

How to Find the Best Health Insurance for College Students

There are a few things to consider when looking for the best health insurance as a college student.

  • See if you can stay on your parent’s plan: If you’re under age 26 and can stay on your parent’s health insurance, review your plan documents to see how many in-network providers are near your college. If there are enough, you can stop your search here. But if not, you’ll need to explore other options like a school-sponsored plan, private insurance or finding a part-time job with medical benefits.
  • Consider what type of care you need: As you shop around, think about how often you go to the doctor and what types of coverage you may need. For instance, do you currently see any specialists or have any pre-existing conditions? If so, make sure these are covered.
  • Compare costs: When you’re comparing health insurance plans, it’s important to look at more than just the monthly premium. You’ll also want to consider the deductible, copays, coverage options and any exclusions that may apply. This will help you find the best health insurance plan for your needs.
  • Talk to a health insurance agent or broker: If you’re having trouble finding the right health insurance plan, consider talking to an independent health insurance agent or broker. Agents and brokers are trained professionals who can help you compare health insurance plans and find the best option for your needs.

Best Health Insurance for College Students FAQ

Can college students use their parents’ health insurance?

Yes, college students can stay on their parent’s health insurance plan until age 26—even if they no longer live at home or file taxes as a dependent.

Can a college student be denied coverage for health reasons?

ACA plans can’t deny someone for health reasons (like pre-existing conditions) because they’re guaranteed-issue plans. However, short-term health insurance isn’t guaranteed-issued, meaning an insurer could choose not to cover preexisting conditions.

Do college students receive free health care?

Colleges and universities charge a premium for student health insurance plans (SHIP). You may qualify for free healthcare if you meet eligibility requirements for low-income health insurance like Medicaid.


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