Insights:

The best health insurance for students depends on many factors, including whether they can stay on their parent’s health plan.

Even though college students tend to be young and healthy, they still need health insurance to protect against crushing costs if they get sick or have an accident and need expensive medical care. And many colleges require that students prove they have health insurance when they enroll. 

One easy way to get coverage is through a parent’s health plan, but that coverage may not be effective if the child moves away to college. 

Key Takeaways

  • A parent’s health plan is often the best way for college students to get affordable health insurance for college students with comprehensive health coverage. However, if they’re going to school out-of-state, there could be issues with the plan’s provider network.
  • Schools also often offer student health insurance plans, which can help them get care while school is in session.
  • Catastrophic health insurance may be a wise choice for college students under 30 who don’t expect to need much health care and want a safety net for unexpected medical services.
  • Lower-income students may qualify for Medicaid, which offers comprehensive coverage at low or no cost.

Here’s what you need to know about health insurance for college students. 

What are health insurance options for college students?

College students may have several health insurance options to choose from:

  • Stay on a parent’s health insurance until age 26.
  • Purchase a student health insurance plan available through the college or university.
  • Get an individual policy or catastrophic health plan through the state’s health insurance marketplace.
  • Receive health insurance coverage through a plan offered by the student’s employer (for eligible employed students).
  • Buy a short-term medical plan offered by a private insurance company.
  • The college student may qualify for Medicaid depending on income and state.

For many college students, the best option is to stay on a parent’s plan. The Affordable Care Act requires that health plans covering dependents must offer coverage to adult children until they turn 26.

Most college students qualify. Young adults don’t have to live with their parents or be dependent for tax purposes to stay on a parent’s health plan. 

Adding a child to a health plan may increase costs on the parent’s health insurance. However, if you already have a family plan, adding another dependent likely won’t affect insurance premiums.

Some policies are priced as employee + 1 and employee +2, but others have either self-only vs. dependent coverage or employee plus children.

“If the premiums are employee plus children, then it’s the same premiums for two or three children,” says Wayne Sakamoto, an independent health insurance broker in Naples, Florida.

Even if you aren’t covering other children, adding your college student under a health policy may still be the most affordable option, especially if it’s an employer-sponsored health plan. Employers usually subsidize the premiums both for employees and their dependents. If both you and your spouse have employer-sponsored health insurance, compare the cost of adding your college student to either parent’s policy. Also, check out the plan’s provider networks to see your child’s options when in school, especially if the college is out of state.

Here’s how the different health plan options compare:

Health Plan Pros Cons
Stay on parent’s planComprehensive group health plan coverage
Usually more affordable than individual health plan
May have limited provider options while in session depending on location and plan type
Not as many plan options as marketplace or individual plan
Get plan through employerComprehensive group health plan coverage
Usually more affordable than individual health plan
May not qualify if working part-time
Limited health plan options
Marketplace planComprehensive coverage
Can be affordable if you qualify for subsidies
More plan options
Can be expensive if you don’t qualify for subsidies
Catastrophic planLow premiumsMore out-of-pocket costs
High deductible
College health planMay be more affordable than other more comprehensive coverage
Guarantees student can get nearby care when in session
Benefits may not be as comprehensive
May still need other coverage for when school isn’t in session
MedicaidNo or low costs based on income
Comprehensive benefits
May have trouble finding providers that accept Medicaid
Eligibility linked to household income
Short-term health planLow premiumsLimited benefits
Large out-of-pocket costs
May have small provider network

Find out more about the differences between employer-sponsored health insurance and individual health insurance

Questions to ask when choosing a student health insurance plan

Here are questions to answer when deciding on a plan for a college student:

  1. Does your health insurance have in-network doctors and hospitals near the college? If not, some policies (such as PPOs) may let you use out-of-network providers but charge higher deductibles and copayments. Other plans, such as HMOs, don’t cover out-of-network providers, except for emergencies.
  2. What type of medical care will your child need while away at school? Will they get basic care at the college’s health clinic?
  3. Are there specialists they may need to see while they’re away at school? How would those visits be covered? Or do they live close enough that they would go to doctor’s visits while home from college and need the coverage at school primarily for emergencies?

Think about how the plan covers care where your child lives, especially if they’re in a different state and can’t make it home quickly if they need to go to the doctor.

“Say the family lives in Texas and they have an HMO plan and the child is living in Florida. If so, it makes sense for the child to get their own coverage,” says Sakamoto.

What academic health plans are available?

Many colleges offer specialized health plans for students and make it easy to sign up. These student plans are usually inexpensive and created specifically to coincide with the school schedule.

They may cover the college’s student health center as an in-network provider and may also cover local doctors and hospitals.

In addition to the premiums, ask about the policy’s details:

  • What are the deductibles and out-of-pocket costs?
  • What local doctors and hospitals accept the plan?
  • What is the coverage like for prescription drugs, mental health care, and other medical expenses?
  • What happens if the student gets sick or injured when they’re home for breaks?
  • Are there any coverage limits or exclusions?

Health insurance for college students with no income

Students can also buy their own health insurance from their state insurance marketplace, which usually provides multiple coverage options from several insurers.

All policies sold on the marketplaces must meet Affordable Care Act standards, such as provide 10 essential health benefits, cover pre-existing conditions, and cap out-of-pocket costs for covered expenses. For 2021, the out-of-pocket maximum is $8,550 for an individual, including deductibles and copayments but not premiums.

Depending on income and tax status, they may qualify for a subsidy to help pay the premiums. If their parents claim them as dependent on their income tax return, the students can’t get a subsidy based on their own income.

But suppose they file their own income tax return. In that case, they may be able to get a premium subsidy if their modified adjusted gross income is between 100% and 400% of the federal poverty level (which is from $12,760 to $51,040 for an individual for 2021 plans). The subsidy can reduce the premiums significantly.

Policies on the state marketplaces and Healthcare.gov come in four basic levels:

  1. Bronze plans have the lowest premiums but the highest deductibles and cost-sharing.
  2. Silver plans have moderate premiums and coverage.
  3. Gold policies have higher premiums but lower deductibles and copayments.
  4. Platinum policies have the highest premiums but the lowest deductibles and copayments.

When shopping for a policy:

  • Review after-subsidy premiums (if eligible) as well as deductibles and copayments.
  • Determine coverages and costs for your prescription medications.
  • Find out if the doctors and hospitals you normally use are considered in-network providers.

What if the student is not dependent on their parents’ income-tax return and their income is below 250% of the federal poverty level (which is $31,900 for an individual)? In this scenario, they could also qualify for a cost-sharing subsidy, which helps reduce their deductibles and copayments. But they can only receive this subsidy if they purchase a Silver policy.

Another option that may be available on the marketplace for people under age 30 is catastrophic health insurance. These policies have very high deductibles but lower premiums.

You can sign up for coverage on the state marketplaces and Healthcare.gov during the open enrollment period each year (Nov. 1 to Dec. 15 in most states for coverage starting the following Jan. 1). Some states that run their own marketplaces have slightly longer open enrollment periods.

Special enrollment periods

You may qualify for a special enrollment period to sign up at other times of the year in certain circumstances, such as if you move or you lose family health insurance coverage (when you turn 26 or your parent loses his or her job with coverage).

Students who aren’t dependents on their parent’s income tax return may qualify for Medicaid coverage in some states if they have very low income — currently less than 138% of the federal poverty level. That level is $17,609 for an individual in 2021. Eligibility is based on a monthly income of less than $1,467. If you qualify, you usually pay no premiums and little or no cost-sharing for coverage.

But the rules and eligibility requirements vary by state. Some states haven’t expanded Medicaid coverage to childless adults. See Medicaid.gov for more information, or you can visit your state marketplace or use the Medicaid quick screening tool to see if you are eligible.

Best health insurance for college students in 2021

Curious about what the best health insurance plans are for college students today? Thankfully, there are many options. Read on for our recommendations, but make sure to dig into information about any health plan to find the right one for you.

Best overall

The leader in the field for college student health insurance plans, plenty of experts agree, is Cigna. That’s because many policyholders pay less than $100 monthly in premiums if they qualify for subsidized assistance (which is true of 75% of plan applicants).

As with many insurance plans, you can select a more affordable Bronze plan that charges lower monthly premiums but higher deductibles, all the way up to a Platinum plan for which you’ll fork over more in monthly premiums but pay less in deductibles. You can also pick an HMO plan that requires you to remain in-network or a PPO plan that allows you to access a wider array of physicians and experts.

The good news here is that, with Cigna insurance, your pre-existing conditions are covered, telehealth visits are included (enabling you to meet with a physician by video chat or phone call if you choose), and preventive care for things like a flu shot or annual checkup cost nothing.

Best for international students

Foreign students studying in the United States can select from several different health insurance plans. One of the most recommended is the Student Secure plan from WorldTrips (formerly HCCMIS), which offers plans for as little as $30 per month for students on a tight budget.

“At that price, they will have a deductible of $50 per injury, illness, or visit to the student health center in-network or $100 out-of-network, and $350 for treatment at an emergency room,” explains Joe Cronin, president of International Citizens Group in Hingham, Massachusetts. “This plan does not cover college sports or injury from terrorism, however, and it only covers 50% of the cost of prescriptions, with a maximum lifetime benefit of $200,000.”

Best short-term coverage

When it comes to short-term health care coverage, many point to UnitedHealthcare’s offerings for college students as providing the best value.

“UnitedHealthcare’s short-term plans include a wide range of benefit options customizable to any budget,” says John Bartleson, owner of Health Benefits Connect in Englewood, Colorado. “These short-term plans use a national PPO network that includes over 1.4 million physicians and other medical professionals as well as 6,500 hospitals and other medical facilities.”

Low monthly premiums, personalized policies, and a nationwide network add up to an attractive option for college students seeking coverage over a finite period.

Best catastrophic health plan

When you’re on a budget, a catastrophic health plan can provide some level of protection in case a disaster happens, such as an unexpected illness or injury that can cost thousands to treat without health care coverage.

One worthy catastrophic plan for college students often mentioned in the industry is provided by Aetna. In exchange for relatively inexpensive premiums, you’ll pay no cost for up to three annual primary care physician visits and some preventive services, including screenings and vaccinations. 

You’ll also be safeguarded against the costs of emergency inpatient care, although your monthly deductibles will be pricey ($8,550 max, currently). Aetna’s catastrophic plans require you to be under 30 or be eligible for a hardship exemption, and they’re only available in certain states.

What is the average cost of college student health insurance?

The average student health insurance plan today will set you back between $1,500 and $2,500 annually, according to the American College Health Association.

“Monthly premiums for health insurance plans are generally based on the level of benefits of the health insurance plan, the age of the applicant, the zip code of the applicant’s primary residence, tobacco usage, and annual income in some cases,” Bartleson explains about individual health insurance plans. “Like all other types of health insurance, the total costs of health care coverage for health insurance plans for college students have increased in recent years.”

Case in point: Cronin, whose son is a junior at Georgetown University, says the school “charges approximately $2,500 per semester year for its school-sponsored health care plan.”

Frequently Asked Questions

How can college students get health insurance?

College students can get health insurance in one of several ways. They can remain on a parent’s health insurance plan until the age of 26. They can buy a student health insurance plan available through the college or university. They can obtain an individual policy or catastrophic health plan through the health insurance marketplace in the state where they primarily reside as a student. They can receive health insurance coverage through a plan offered by their employer, if eligible. They can purchase a short-term medical plan offered by a private insurance company. Or they may qualify for low- to no-cost Medicaid coverage, depending on their income and state of residence.

What is Student Medicover?

Student Medicover is a specialized health plan for international students studying in the United States. They’re usually required to have health insurance, like other students, but they aren’t eligible for some of the options that are available to Americans and their family’s coverage at home may not extend to the U.S. 

Student Medicover may cover care at your college’s student health center as well as doctors and hospitals in the UnitedHealthcare Options PPO system.

What is the cheapest health insurance for college students?

The cheapest health insurance for college students is Medicaid, if eligible, which can provide low- to no-cost insurance coverage. College students may also qualify for an affordable Obamacare plan on the ACA marketplace for which their premiums and out-of-pocket costs may be subsidized, depending on income and need.

Do students need health insurance?

Most American universities and colleges require college students to be covered by a major medical plan. Many students receive this coverage by remaining on their parent’s health care plan, while others purchase coverage available through the ACA exchange, private insurance marketplace, or the school directly. If they qualify, college students may receive low- to no-cost health care coverage through their state’s Medicaid services.

What is a school-sponsored health insurance plan?

Many colleges and universities offer a school-sponsored health insurance plan, often for an affordable price. Students typically sign up when they pay their next semester’s tuition or during the admission process. Health care services are often provided on-campus, but off-campus providers and services are usually not covered.

How long can college students stay on a parent’s health insurance?

College students can remain on their parent’s health insurance plan until age 26. After that time, they are required to obtain their own health insurance coverage plan as an adult.

Do college students receive free health care?

College students may be eligible to receive health care coverage, at no additional premium cost, if they remain on their parent’s health care plan. Or, they may be eligible for free health care coverage through the Medicaid program offered in their state of residence. Alternatively, if a student’s employer offers a group health care plan, they may be able to take advantage of free or low-cost coverage. Otherwise, the student and/or family may have to purchase coverage through the school, the ACA marketplace, or a private insurance company.

Can college students use their parents’ health insurance?

Yes, college students are allowed to remain on their parent’s health insurance plan until age 26.

What is the best health insurance for students over 26?

Once students turn 26, they’re typically required to obtain their own health insurance plan as an adult. They can opt for a plan offered through the university or college, an individual policy or catastrophic policy available through their state’s health insurance marketplace, an employer-sponsored health plan, a short-term medical plan sold by a private insurance company, or Medicaid if they qualify based on income and need.

What is the best health insurance for an 18-year-old college student?

The best health plan for an 18-year-old is likely a parent’s health insurance plan — especially if adding the child won’t increase the plan’s monthly premiums. Another option is a health plan provided by the college.

What is the best health insurance for a 19-year-old college student?

An employer-sponsored health plan — through a parent or a college student’s employer — is often the cheapest way to get comprehensive health insurance. Another way to get comprehensive benefits is through Medicaid, but you have to qualify based on income.

What is the best health insurance for a 20-year-old college student?

An employer-sponsored health plan — through a parent or a college student’s employer — is often the cheapest way A group health plan from an employer is likely your best bet. However, if the student decides to get a health plan on their own, you may be able to get a low-cost catastrophic health plan or a subsidized individual plan from the health insurance marketplace.

What is the best health insurance for a 21-year-old college student?

Students looking to break more from their parents may prefer getting their own health insurance plan. That may include getting on a group plan through an employer if they’re eligible, a catastrophic health plan, or an individual plan through the health insurance marketplace. Another option is a short-term health insurance plan that provides limited coverage until the college student gets a full-time job with full health insurance benefits.