Terms like “premiums,” “deductibles,” and “out-of-network providers” can sound like they’re part of a complicated foreign language, especially if you’re in graduate school for something other than health education. Health insurance gets even more confusing for online students, considering some colleges, like the University of Southern Alabama, don’t require it for online students. Others, like the University of Nevada, Reno, mandate that all students must have a health insurance plan upon enrollment.
Fortunately, it is possible to understand your university’s healthcare requirements without taking an entire class on it. Plus, the University of Nevada and many other schools offer their own insurance plans.
In this guide, we’ll reveal how university-sponsored health insurance works, as well as if you’re better off with that, an employer-sponsored plan, or one through the marketplace. With an understanding of the basics, you’ll be well-prepared to choose your own plan. Read until the end for practical resources and answers to the most frequently asked questions about health insurance.
Preliminary Healthcare Considerations for Grad Students
Before you can enroll in a healthcare plan, you need to consider your current situation. Factors like your age, healthcare needs, school requirements, and available insurance options will inform you what healthcare plans are available to you. To get started, review the considerations outlined below.
Consideration 1: Your Age
According to the Council of Graduate Schools, today’s average grad student age is 33 years old. This statistic is important because grad students are only eligible to be covered under their parent’s healthcare plan until they turn 26. So if you are considered a younger graduate student and under 26, you can be covered by your parents’ plan; however, if you’re older, you’ve “aged out” of your parents’ plan.
When exactly you age out of your parents’ plan also differs, depending on the type of plan they have. If they have marketplace insurance (health insurance independent of their job), you can stay on their plan until Dec. 31 of the year you turn 26, even if your birthday is in January.
However, if your parents have health insurance through their job, you age out the month you turn 26. When this happens, you enter a special enrollment period, during which you have 60 days of additional coverage and 60 days after that to sign up for a new plan. For more on how aging out works, check out the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services’ guide to turning 26.
Consideration 2: Your School’s Health Insurance Requirements
As we’ve discussed, while there are some exceptions for online students, most schools require proof of health insurance for all graduate students.
When required, most schools offer a graduate student health insurance option. Some schools have an automatic enrollment policy, where all graduate students are enrolled in a plan, and students must submit a waiver to avoid the student insurance fee. The University of Maryland is an example of an automatic enrollment school.
The University of Iowa, on the other hand, offers students an open enrollment period instead of automatically enrolling them into a health insurance plan. During this open enrollment period, students must enroll in the university’s healthcare plan for graduate students or provide proof of an independent plan.
No matter what type of enrollment a school utilizes, students usually need insurance, either through the school or an independent plan that meets the institution’s standards. Inquire with your university to know what plans meet standards, as this can vary from school to school.
Consideration 3: Health Insurance Carriers
As you might have already guessed, there are multiple health insurance options for graduate students. All of them have pros and cons, and each will be the best option in different scenarios. If you’re ineligible for your parent’s health insurance, you have four main options from which to choose:
Choosing the Best Health Insurance Plan
When choosing the best healthcare plan, there is more to consider than your age, your school’s requirements, and the provider. Each healthcare insurer may offer multiple plans you qualify for. To add to this, there are a variety of different factors to consider — so how do you choose? Follow the steps below to better understand how to select the best plan for your needs.
Step 1: Understand Your Healthcare Plan Options
After you’ve considered your age, your university’s requirements, and different provider types, it’s time to understand the essential components of each plan you’re considering. For an easy side-by-side plan comparison, customize this worksheet with the specifics of each plan you’re considering.
Step 2: Compare Healthcare Plan Coverage
Once you’ve looked at the different healthcare plans and understand the terms of each, it’s time to compare your options. While cost is an important concern, you’ll have other factors to consider, too.
Step 3: Consider the Costs
No matter what health insurance plan you choose, you most likely will have to pay some money yourself. When looking at the costs, consider your monthly premium, but also look at other charges you may be responsible for.
Health Insurance FAQs for Graduate Students
Am I required to have health insurance while enrolled in online college?
While it isn’t a federal or state law, almost all universities require health insurance for graduate students who attend school full time. At some schools, like the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, this only applies to those who are enrolled in 9 credit hours or more per semester. Even if health insurance isn’t a requirement by your university or if you’re a part-time student, you should be aware that there is a tax penalty in certain states for residents who don’t have health insurance. Not all states have this penalty, and there is no federal penalty.
What happens if I can't afford health insurance?
If you can’t afford health insurance, you may be eligible through Medicaid. While it’s important to check Medicaid’s eligibility requirements in your state, it’s generally available to those on Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Each state also has a certain percentage below the poverty line to qualify. If your income level is too high for Medicaid but paying for insurance is difficult, you may be eligible for a lower-cost plan through the Marketplace.
What happens if I age out of my parent’s health insurance in the middle of grad school?
As we’ve discussed, if you’re covered through your parents’ plan, you have 60 days to enroll in a new plan. If they receive insurance through the Marketplace, you’re covered on their plan until the end of the year and may choose a new plan in the open enrollment period (Nov. 1 through Jan. 15). To learn if you can switch over to your university’s graduate student health insurance plan, reach out to your individual institution.
How does health insurance work for international students?
If a university requires graduate students to have health insurance, that same policy applies to international students. That means international students in the United States will need to get a healthcare plan, often through their university. For example, Lehigh University requires international students to enroll in their student health insurance policy.
If you’re an online student taking classes at a U.S. college while in another country, you may be able to apply for a health insurance waiver with the health insurance plan in your home country, though this varies from school to school.
How do I opt out of graduate student insurance?
If you want to opt out of your university’s health insurance, you typically have to submit a waiver. The exact information you must submit and when your waiver is due depends on the university. For example, at the University of Maryland, the waiver is due between June 15 and Sept 30. It results in a refund for the automatically charged student health insurance.
Health Insurance Resources for Graduate Students
Ready to perform an even deeper dive into the world of graduate student health insurance — or perhaps you’re looking for insights into how to choose a plan? Review the 15 resources below for more information.
- 6 Tips to Help You Pick the Right Health Insurance Plan – read or listen to this NPR report that offers tips on choosing the best plan for you.
- Choosing a Health Insurance Plan – this guide from Washington University in St. Louis outlines what graduate students should consider when choosing healthcare insurance.
- Demystify Health Insurance for Graduate Students – Penn State University created this helpful FAQ and guide about the biggest misconceptions about graduate student health insurance.
- Graduate Students with Disabilities – if you’re a graduate student with a disability, you may have additional health and insurance concerns. Some of these might be covered in our guide for graduate students with disabilities.
- Healthcare.gov’s Guide for Students – Healthcare.gov, the governing body of health insurance in the United States, offers a short but useful guide to health insurance for full-time students.
- Health Insurance Glossary – as you review health insurance options, you might come across unfamiliar terms. This health insurance glossary from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services is here to help.
- Health Insurance for International Students – if you’re an international student and still confused about your healthcare options, check out this helpful YouTube video.
- How Graduate Student Health Insurance Works – Boston University created a series of videos for graduate students about how student health insurance works and other healthcare considerations.
- The Marketplace – if you aren’t happy with your university’s healthcare plan, the government-facilitated Marketplace is the place to go to explore other options.
- Medicaid Eligibility – if you’re a low-income student, your health insurance may be covered by Medicaid. Check out this guide to Medicaid eligibility to see if this is an option for you.
- Mental Health Resources – whether your plan covers mental health costs or not, our guide to mental health resources for graduate students is here to help.
- Seeing a Specialist – still confused about how seeing a specialist works under your plan? Explore this guide from the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Service.
- Student Health Insurance Podcast – this episode from the University of California, Irvine answers important questions about insurance for college students.
- Subsidized Health Insurance – some universities subsidize part of their graduate student’s healthcare costs. George Mason University explains how this works in greater detail.
- When Insurance Isn’t Needed as an Online Student – at some universities, fully online students are not required to provide proof of insurance or eligible for graduate student health insurance. This page on the University of Central Florida website is an example of how schools with this exception word their online student insurance policy.