As a college student, you may think you don't need health insurance or that it's too costly. But health care expenses can be high — a surgery or hospital stay can run between $10,000 and $20,000 — and without insurance, you risk paying the full cost on your own and damaging your financial well-being.
Best health insurance for college students
There are several ways to get health insurance for college students, and you may have questions about which option best fits your situation. You, as a student, may qualify for Medicaid or employer coverage, or you could have access to a college-sponsored health plan or your parents' insurance. If none of these apply to you, you'll need to look into an individual Affordable Care Act (ACA) or short-term medical plan. To help you find the best insurance for your needs, we reviewed several health insurance companies and evaluated plans based on a range of factors.
Best overall health insurance for college students
- AM Best financial strength rating: A
- NAIC complaint index: 0.20
- Better Business Bureau: "A" average rating
For college students needing to enroll in their own health insurance, Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS) has ACA plans in all but three states: Mississippi, Nebraska and South Dakota. This makes those plans accessible to almost any college student, and coverage is easily transferable if you switch to a school in a different state. Along with that, a Blue Cross insurance card is accepted almost anywhere in the U.S.
Depending on your location, you can choose coverage tiers starting with Catastrophic up to a fully comprehensive Platinum plan. Some "metal" plans — Bronze, Silver, Gold or Platinum — include optional dental and vision insurance. Catastrophic plans are a specific ACA coverage type. They offer a lower monthly rate, but coverage doesn't start until after you pay the first $8,550 (in 2021) per year in medical expenses. This annual deductible amount may be higher than it would be with some Bronze or Silver plans.
Along with affordable rates, Blue Cross Blue Shield offers a fairly extensive list of member resources and tools, including but not limited to:
- A 24/7 nurse line
- Blue365, which offers discounts on health and fitness clubs, weight loss programs and other health-related products
- A mobile app and a separate member website
Best cheap health insurance
- AM Best financial strength rating: N/A
- NAIC complaint index: 1.18
- Better Business Bureau: "A" for both Ambetter and Centene
Depending on where you're attending college, Ambetter might be a good option if you are on a tight budget. A large portion of Ambetter members receive a subsidy for part or all of the monthly premium, making their rates more affordable. Even without the subsidy, we found that Ambetter offers some of the cheapest rates in eight of the 20 states where it does business.
Ambetter products, which are underwritten by Centene Corp., cover over 2 million health insurance exchange members. Ambetter offers three major tier plans — Bronze, Silver and Gold — all of which are certified as Qualified Health Plans on the Health Insurance Marketplace or a specific state insurance exchange.
Better Business Bureau ratings for Ambetter have improved noticeably over the last year, which indicates improvement in responding to customer concerns.
Along with cheap rates, Ambetter offers a unique set of member resources, discounts and tools, such as:
- A 24/7 nurse line
- Rewards points for completing wellness goals which can be used toward various personal costs
- Discounts on health and wellness items like gym memberships and digital fitness programs
- Savings on retail items such as office supplies and computers
Best short-term insurance
- AM Best financial strength rating: A+
- NAIC complaint index: 0.79
- Better Business Bureau: "C"
Everest plans include benefits for wellness and mental health and the freedom to choose your providers. You can select from a range of copayments, coinsurance and one of five deductibles: $1,000, $2,500, $5,000, $7,500 or $10,000. Everest also offers multiple policy term lengths according to state regulations.
Federal regulations do not require short-term health insurance to cover the essential health benefits such as maternity care and prescription drugs. If you are considering purchasing a short-term plan, you should make sure it will cover your health needs.
It's also important to note that short-term medical plans are not required to cover preexisting conditions and may deny or adjust coverage based on an applicant's age or medical history. Due to these limitations, Everest plans are best for college students in good health without ongoing medical needs.
Best international insurance
- AM Best financial strength rating: B++
- AM Best financial outlook: Stable
- NAIC and Better Business Bureau: N/A
Compass and Global Benefits Group — also known as GBG Insurance Limited — have teamed up to offer health insurance for international students studying in the U.S. These are preferred provider organization (PPO) plans that use the UnitedHealthcare (UHC) network of over 1 million doctors and 6,500 facilities.
Compass plans are a good option for students on a budget. For about $103 per month, a 21-year-old F-visa student can get a Care Sports plan with low copays and deductibles plus coverage for injuries arising from intramural and club sports. Using the UHC network helps keep your costs down, too. (You can use out-of-network providers but will pay more.) Your copay for a visit to your student health center (SHC) is lower — or even free — with most Compass plans.
Some Compass plans include preexisting waiting periods of up to 12 months. This means you must wait 12 months before Compass will pay toward a medical condition you had prior to your coverage effective date. Other Compass plans have no waiting period, meaning you are covered right away for preexisting conditions. For plans that include a preexisting clause, you can reduce your waiting period by providing proof of continuous prior coverage.
Other health insurance options for students
Before buying an individual major medical or short-term insurance policy, carefully consider every option to find a plan that fits your budget, lifestyle and health care needs. Cheap health insurance for college students comes in many forms, and alternatives to major medical or short-term coverage are often cheaper and better options.
School-sponsored student health plans If your school offers a student health plan, it can be an easy and affordable way to get basic insurance coverage. Student health plans are usually part of your tuition or fees, so you can pay the monthly bills through your student loans. To qualify, you must be a full-time student and use campus health providers.
If you're enrolled in a student health plan, in most cases, it meets coverage standards set by the ACA. This means the plan would cover preexisting conditions and provide the minimum benefits required by the ACA, including:
- Ambulatory patient services
- Emergency services
- Maternity and newborn care
- Mental health and substance use disorder services
- Prescription drugs
- Rehabilitative and habilitative services and devices
- Laboratory services
- Preventive and wellness services and chronic disease management
- Pediatric services, including oral and vision care
Parents' insurance coverage You can remain on your parents' health insurance plan until age 26. Before you commit to using your parents' plan, check to be sure it covers the area where you're attending school. If not, or if you have aged out of your parents' plan, you'll want to look at your options. Health insurance for college students over 26 might include Medicaid, an individual ACA plan or short-term medical insurance.
Employer-sponsored plans Employer health insurance plans generally provide robust coverage at affordable rates, so they are a good option for working students. It is important to remember that if you have access to employer-sponsored coverage, you cannot enroll in an individual ACA plan — even if you turn down the employer plan.
Medicaid: An option for low-income students If you file your own tax returns and your household income doesn’t exceed a specific threshold ($17,774 for a single individual in 2021 depending on your state of residence), consider Medicaid as an option if you can. Medicaid could still work even if your parents claim you on their tax return, as long as the entire household's income doesn’t exceed the poverty level threshold. Depending on the financial situation, Medicaid can end up being free health insurance for college students.
More information about enrolling in an ACA plan If you've reviewed your other options and need to enroll in an ACA plan, there are some additional things you need to know:
- If going to college involves moving to a new location, you're qualified to join an ACA plan under a Special Enrollment Period (SEP). Visit the HealthCare.gov site for more information about special enrollment and open enrollment periods.
- You can't enroll in both a university-sponsored health plan and an ACA plan.
- Students with low incomes may qualify for government subsidies to lower insurance costs, but you must enroll through a state or federal insurance marketplace to qualify. Off-exchange major medical plans are not eligible for subsidies. Check first to see if you qualify for subsidies before deciding where to purchase your ACA health insurance.
- If you file your own tax returns, your premium subsidy is based on your income. But, if your parents claim you on their return, the combined income is used to calculate your eligibility.
ACA Catastrophic plans Catastrophic health plans are another Health Insurance Marketplace option. These programs have low prices, but the annual deductible — $8,550 in 2021 — is very high. To enroll in a Catastrophic plan, you must be either under the age of 30 or qualify for a hardship exemption.
Although Catastrophic plans usually cost less, you can’t use a tax credit to further reduce your cost. Before you choose a Catastrophic plan, check to see if you qualify for a premium tax credit based on your income. If so, a Bronze or Silver plan might be a better value. For example:
The average monthly rate for a Catastrophic plan in Florida is $303. Meanwhile, a 21-year-old Floridian would pay $247 per month for an Ambetter Essential Care Bronze plan. With premium tax credits, the rate could be as low as $65 per month for that same plan. Be sure to shop and compare to get the plan that best fits your personal needs.
Short-term medical insurance Short-term medical insurance is an affordable alternative that could work well for young adults with budget restrictions and fewer health care needs. However, remember that short-term plans do not cover all essential benefits. You also could be denied coverage or pay higher rates if you have preexisting conditions , such as diabetes.
Short-term health insurance is regulated by each state. For example, the following 10 states do not allow the sale of any short-term plans, while others regulate short-term medical term lengths and renewals. Check to see if short-term medical insurance is available where you live and how long you can be covered.
- New Jersey
- New Mexico
- New York
- Rhode Island
The above comparisons are based on plan coverage levels, policy details, third-party rankings and sample cost data for 2021. Rate analysis is based on a female nonsmoker aged 21 according to location and insurance carrier, as well as national cost averages. Sources include HealthCare.gov, healthinsurance.org, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Ambetter, Centene Corp., Everest Reinsurance Co., Compass, Global Benefits Group, AM Best, the Better Business Bureau and the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC).
The sources referenced in this article use multiple factors to determine overall ratings, including a company's financial health or servicing history.
AM Best: AM Best is a credit rating agency that scores insurance companies based on their financial health and ability to meet financial obligations. AM Best is a nationally recognized statistical rating organization.
NAIC: The NAIC complaint index measures an insurer’s complaints to regulators weighted against its market share. An NAIC score of 1.00 indicates that the company has an average number of complaints relative to its size. A lower NAIC number means fewer complaints were filed to regulators.
Better Business Bureau: In calculating ratings, the Better Business Bureau considers the number of complaints and how promptly they are addressed, along with a company’s size relative to complaint totals and its time in business.