Health Insurance Options as a College Student

Health Insurance

September 8, 2022

You’ve registered for classes, unpacked your boxes and decorated your dorm with mementos from home. But one thing that might not have crossed your mind as you prepare to start college this fall is making sure you’ve got health insurance. 

And for people who are already covered by their parents’ plan, that makes sense. Nothing will change for you as you leave home and start your next adventure. Under the Affordable Care Act (ACA or Obamacare), you can stay on a family health insurance plan until you turn 26.

But for those of you without access to a family health insurance plan, options for getting covered might seem limited or even nonexistent. Besides, who needs health insurance? Other than the occasional sniffle during flu season, you don’t need a doctor enough to justify hundreds in monthly premiums. Right? 

Not so fast. While you might not need to see a doctor regularly, health insurance isn’t about minor aches and pains. It’s about protecting your wallet when unexpected disaster strikes. In other words, it’s a safety net, one you may need as you go out into the world and rack up new experiences.

Plus, health insurance options when you’re young and relatively healthy can be cheaper than you think. If you’re starting college and can’t stay on a family plan or don’t have access to one, check out the following to make sure you’re covered.

School coverage

Many colleges and universities offer a student health insurance plan. If that’s the case, consider taking your school up on its offer. (Some schools actually require it, too, so check to make sure.)

Student health plans tend to be pretty affordable, relative to other kinds of insurance. At the University of Florida, for instance, student health insurance for a whole year (August to July) costs $3,004. It also covers 80% of the cost of in-network care after you meet a deductible of $500. Students at the University of Alabama pay $2,232 for a full year of coverage with similar benefits.

School plans typically cover comprehensive benefits, similar to major medical coverage you get on the marketplace or through a job. Some schools may also allow you to use your health plan at the on-campus health center without having to meet a deductible first. And services at a campus health center might not cost anything out of pocket, either, if you use your school-backed plan. 

Plus, these plans are usually underwritten by major carriers. In both of our examples above, the student health plans are provided by UnitedHealthcare. 

If available, school-based health coverage is your best option as a college student outside of staying enrolled in a family plan. And in some cases, it might even be better than an ACA plan when looking at premiums and out-of-pocket costs.

ACA plan

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) made it so that modern health insurance plans cover a broad range of benefits. They’re comprehensive policies, covering 10 essential health benefits and offering subsidies to make insurance premiums lower for people who make less money. 

As a college student, you may have access to a special category of benefits called catastrophic coverage. These plans are for people under age 30 and cover all of the same benefits as other ACA plans. But in exchange for lower premiums, they come with much higher deductibles and higher out-of-pocket costs.

You could also buy regular ACA benefits in one of four tiers: bronze, silver, gold and platinum. These plans cover a full range of benefits and you might qualify for a tax credit to make premiums affordable.

The downside is that you can’t buy an ACA plan anytime you want. There’s an open enrollment period, and coverage doesn’t start right away. Open enrollment for major medical plans runs from November 1st through January 15th nationwide, for coverage starting January 2023. 

So if you need coverage for fall 2022, you’ll need to go a different route. (You could also see if you qualify for a special enrollment period for marketplace coverage.) ACA plans can also be costly if you don’t meet the income requirements for a significant subsidy.

Short term health insurance

If you don’t have access to a student health plan or can’t afford one of the major medical coverage options highlighted above, then consider short term health insurance. This temporary coverage is designed for people who are in transition in life. Examples include people waiting for a new job-based policy to start or young adults aging out of a family plan. If you’re in school and don’t have other options for health insurance, a short term policy might work.

Short term plans typically cover the unexpected, like acute problems, urgent care and emergency room visits. These policies aren’t comprehensive. Many don’t cover preventive care, prescription drugs or the other essential health benefits that major medical plans cover. 

But when you’re young and relatively healthy, short term policies can be an affordable way to offset the cost of high medical bills – particularly when those bills are unexpected. A single trip to the ER might cost a couple thousand dollars, a price tag that’s well above the average student’s budget. 

Short term coverage might not be a good replacement for a student health plan or marketplace plan, but it’s an affordable stopgap in the interim.