Most colleges and universities require students to have health insurance. It’s for their own benefit — having coverage allows degree-seeking students to remain in the pink of health and receive prompt medical care as necessary, thus allowing them to stay in school and complete their academic programs within the intended timeframe.
Unfortunately, student insurance doesn’t usually come free of charge, but it’s still worth it.
In this post, I will talk about health insurance plan options available for college students with no or low income so that they can make the right choice according to their specific needs as well as certain circumstantial factors.
1. Parent’s Health Insurance
For the vast majority of students who are pursuing an undergraduate degree, there’s no other health insurance available for them that’s as good as the health insurance of their parents.
Provided that they are below 26 years of age, they can stay on it.
The time when you lose coverage when you turn 26 can vary, depending on your parent’s health insurance.
For instance, you may lose coverage the instant that you reach the said age limit. In some instances, you may lose coverage either at the end of that calendar month or the end of that calendar year.
Some parents get their health insurance from their employers. And if your parent got his or hers from an employer, more often than not, you could be removed as a dependent, and thus love coverage, on your 26th birthday itself.
And speaking of being not a dependent, here’s wonderful news concerning being on a parent’s health insurance: for as long as you haven’t turned 26 years of age yet, you can have coverage even if you are no longer dependent on his or her tax return — yes, you could be already filing your taxes independently and still be staying on your parent’s health insurance.
Other than that, in most instances, you can remain enjoying coverage even if you:
- Leave college
- Get married
- Give birth
- Adopt a child
- Live elsewhere
- Qualify for employer-sponsored coverage at a job
With so many major happenings in the life of a young adult that won’t restrict you to stay on the health plan of a parent, it’s no wonder why parent’s health insurance is widely considered the best coverage for degree-seeking individuals.
But it’s important to point out that while it’s usually the best, it’s not the perfect health insurance for college students.
Staying on a parent’s health insurance, for many teeners who have set their eyes on an undergraduate degree after high school, begins to become less than ideal the minute that they head to an out-of-state school, which, more often than not, will prompt them to explore other options — either get their own coverage or stick to an in-state institution.
Health insurance plans usually require individuals to obtain care only from an approved network of providers, usually within the state.
And if a student on a parent’s health insurance is going to a college outside of the state, there may be no in-network providers in the area. This may mean that the student may be asked to opt for college-sponsored insurance.
But there’s hope: if your parent has a preferred provider organization (PPO) or can switch to one, you may be able to stay on his or her plan and still have optimum coverage while studying elsewhere.
2. Spousal or Domestic Partnership Health Insurance
Earlier, we talked about the fact that getting married won’t necessarily keep you from getting coverage under your parent’s health insurance — you could tie the knot and still remain tied to the plan of your parents.
But did you know that getting married also makes you eligible to enroll in your spouse’s health insurance?
Obtaining spousal health insurance is an affordable way to get coverage as a college student, especially because it’s the employer of your other half who foots the bill of health costs.
So, in other words, being married allows you to escape the responsibility of paying steep monthly premiums for coverage as you work on your undergraduate degree.
Feel like it’s not yet time to exchange vows? Fret not. That’s because you can be not married to someone and still enjoy the perk of getting coverage under his or her insurance policy.
And such is by means of domestic partnership health insurance.
Contrary to popular belief, domestic partnerships don’t just pertain to same-sex couples.
Needless to say, you could be a heterosexual person who is romantically or sexually attracted exclusively to individuals of the opposite sex and still be a part of a domestic partnership — there’s no need to feel embarrassed or being judged or ostracized.
At its core, a domestic partnership is a relationship between people who live together and share a common domestic life. However, for couples to be considered in a domestic partnership, they should not be married to one another.
Despite not being in wedlock, individuals who are in domestic partnerships receive legal benefits that many believe are exclusive to married or civilly united people such as the right of survivorship, hospital visitation and many others.
Of course, another perk to enjoy is getting domestic partner health insurance benefits.
But as far as this type of relationship goes, it’s important to note that:
- There’s no federal definition or recognition of domestic partnerships
- There are federal guidelines for legal rights and benefits
Making things more complicated is the fact that the recognition of domestic partnership and, ultimately, the associated benefits and legal rights isn’t always consistent not only from state to state but, in some instances, also within a state.
For instance, it’s not unlikely for some states to recognize domestic partnerships only in certain cities and counties.
In California, for example, a domestic partnership can be registered if the couples are the same sex and at least 18 years of age as well as if the couples are opposite sex and at least one partner is at least 62 years old.
Needless to say, you should contact the marriage-license issuing local government department.
Whether spousal or domestic partnership in nature, coverage is typically comprehensive, which means that your health insurance acquired through such is very much likely for the college you are eyeing to attend to consider equivalent to what its sponsors, thereby allowing you to waive your student health insurance.
3. School-Sponsored Health Insurance
Most colleges and universities that require students to have health insurance offer coverage.
For degree-seeking students with no jobs or low incomes, in most instances, such as when they are no longer on a parent’s health insurance, opting for college-sponsored health insurance makes a lot of sense.
That’s because, generally speaking, it’s cheaper compared to private health insurance available through the marketplace.
According to data provided by the Kaiser Family Foundation, the average cost of single-coverage health insurance is $7,911 per year.
College-sponsored health insurance, meanwhile, costs anywhere from $1,500 to $2,500 annually on average.
The perk of going for a plan provided by your alma mater budget-wise doesn’t begin and end with lower annual premiums — if you lump the price into your tuition and fees, then you don’t have to worry about shelling out monthly payments while you are completing your degree program, thus allowing you to focus on your studies.
On the flip side, however, if you add your student health insurance plan to your student loans, which college students can do, you could find yourself paying interest on your monthly coverage premiums.
What’s really nice about coverage offered by institutions of higher education for their students without health insurance is that most of them are compliant with the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
So, in other words, they have extensive coverage, including the 10 essential health benefits under the ACA itself, and they are:
- Ambulatory services
- Chronic disease management, wellness care and preventive services
- Emergency services
- Laboratory services
- Maternity and newborn care
- Mental health and substance abuse treatment
- Pediatric services (including dental and vision care)
- Prescription drugs
- Rehabilitative and habilitative care
Unless you have comparative coverage, more often than not, you are automatically enrolled in the health insurance plan offered by the college the moment that you enroll in the degree program of your choosing.
The only time when you will realize this fact is when you check your college bill or, for any reason, receive free medical care under the coverage.
But, just like some other health insurance plans, school-sponsored ones aren’t the perfect choice for all students.
While it’s true that having coverage sponsored by your college makes seeking medical care convenient as you will be directed to on-campus or local health care centers as well as you will have low co-pays and deductibles when receiving medical services provided by the affiliated network professionals and hospitals, there are a few downsides around, too.
Some of the things to look into when agreeing to school-sponsored health insurance are:
- Coverage if you are on an internship or a break from your educational pursuit
- Coverage when the semester or school year comes to an end
- Coverage of any pre-existing medical conditions
- The cap on the amount of life coverage provided by the plan
- What will happen if you switch from being a full-time to a part-time student
The US government has a health insurance program: Medicaid. Generally speaking, it’s considered the best option for college students who are 26 years of age or older and cannot join the health insurance plan of their parents.
Simply put, Medicaid offers low-cost and even free insurance coverage to individuals who make below 133% of the federal poverty level (FPL).
In 48 contiguous states (US states touching each other plus the District of Columbia), that means an income amounting to less than $19,391 per year or less than $1,616 per month for a single individual.
Filing taxes as a dependent?
Then the income of your parents is taken into consideration when applying for it.
As a result of the ACA calling for Medicaid expansion, the number of insured college students in the country has increased.
But not all states have chosen to expand Medicaid benefits, which can be a bummer if you reside or attend college in one of them.
And those who have yet to adopt the expansion of Medicaid are the following states:
- South Carolina
Because of this, more than 2.1 million individuals, including degree-seeking students, are in the so-called coverage gap.
This means that they fall within the income level that would make them eligible to apply for and benefit from Medicaid but cannot access it simply because the states they’re living in have not adopted it.
But if you’re not one of those, rejoice — eligibility for Medicaid would mean having access to low-cost or, in some instances, free health insurance plans with comprehensive coverage options for college students.
And pregnant students and students with a physical disability also have special eligibility for Medicaid.
Got a pre-existing or chronic health concern?
You might pay minimum or nothing each time you see your doctor.
However, there are a few downsides that come with Medicaid other than being in a state that has not expanded Medicaid, which makes it inaccessible to you.
One of them is the fact that you must be a resident of where you apply for it. Needless to say, attending an out-of-state institution can impact your coverage.
And because eligibility for Medicaid is based on household income, you may lose access to yours should you earn a much higher income as a college student or a recent college graduate.
So, how do you apply for Medicaid?
You have a couple of options:
- Applying directly with your state. On the website of Medicaid, you can choose your state to determine eligibility requirements as well as to apply for coverage.
- Via the Health Insurance Marketplace. You can create an account with the Health Insurance Marketplace, which is operated by the federal government, to fill out the application form. And just in case your application shows that someone in the family might qualify, it will be forwarded to the state for a final eligibility decision.
5. Individual Health Insurance Plan
Even if you want to explore coverage options for college students other than Medicaid, it’s a good idea for you to create a Health Insurance Marketplace account, which we just finished discussing.
Doing so will make it possible for you to look for various ACA-compliant health insurance.
But before anything else, let’s get one thing straight: not all colleges and universities accept this form of coverage for students.
Especially if your plan is not equivalent to what your postsecondary institution sponsors, you may be asked to have either a family plan or the so-called student health insurance plan (SHIP).
Insurance plans available on the Marketplace may be more expensive or less expensive than a SHIP, depending on factors such as the school you are attending or the particular coverage of your choosing.
An individual health insurance plan is usually advantageous for students who are 26 years old or older.
The same is true for those who are working on a college degree and at the same time have work that pays a very small amount of money — many low-income students can enjoy low annual rates or even just a handful of dollars per month.
Of course, they will have to meet eligibility requirements by submitting proof of income and other personal details.
To search for affordable coverage, enter your household income into the ACA website using your Marketplace account.
But just because a particular health insurance plan is the cheapest you can find doesn’t mean it’s the right one for you.
Before you agree to anything, make sure that you take the following into account:
Check the benefit design
It’s not unlikely for some of the cheapest insurance plans to be more restrictive than the rest in terms of how they can be used.
For instance, compared to a PPO that we briefly mentioned earlier, a health maintenance organization (HMO) is more affordable but tends to have more limitations. So, in other words, weigh the pros and cons of the design beforehand.
Look into the provider network
Each health insurance has its own set of providers and hospitals it considers in-network — going to them, as expected, costs significantly less than going to out-of-network ones.
This is when the importance of considering the top medical care or services you need as well as the location of your college comes in when shopping for coverage.
Ask about additional perks
Nowadays, many plans usually have programs that extend beyond traditional coverage.
For instance, some of them may have telehealth visits that make seeking medical assistance convenient, while others may have a 24/7 hotline that allows you to obtain peace of mind knowing help is available round the clock.
Others may have proprietary health-related apps.
Read Next: Why Do Colleges Make You Have Insurance?
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the College Reality Check.