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It’s essential to have health insurance to protect yourself and your family from high costs in the event you need medical care. If you’re a dependent under the age of 26, you can typically stay on your parents’ health insurance plan. And many colleges and universities offer student plans as well. But if those plans don’t meet your needs, you’ll want to choose a Health Insurance Marketplace plan that is both affordable and offers quality coverage. Keep in mind you may qualify for the premium tax credit, which will lower your premium. We compared third-party ratings and benefits offered across providers to choose the best health insurance companies for college students.
Best for Catastrophic Coverage : Blue Cross Blue Shield
Offers cheap catastrophic plans in many states
3-star or higher healthcare.gov plan ratings
3.7-star average NCQA rating
Benefits and plan types vary by state
J.D. Power ranking varies by region
While not available in all states, Blue Cross Blue Shield offers catastrophic plans with low premiums in some areas. In some states, like Maryland and California, a catastrophic plan from Blue Cross is the cheapest coverage available. Catastrophic plans are ideal for college students who don’t typically need to see a doctor and are just looking for coverage in case of an emergency. Blue Cross Blue Shield plans are also generally well-rated, with a 3-star healthcare.gov rating (or higher in some states) and a 3.7-star average NCQA rating. The company also has an A- (Excellent) financial strength rating from AM Best, which indicates an excellent capacity to cover claims.
Since BCBS is a group of companies, benefits and plan types vary by region. J.D. Power rankings vary by region as well. For example, the company is the top-ranked provider in many Midwestern states, but is ranked last in California. Depending on where you live, you might have access to different benefits as well. But most members will have access to a 24/7 nurse line. Many BCBS members can also receive wellness discounts through the Blue365 discount program. Blue Cross Blue Shield is our #1 pick for Best Health Insurance Companies overall.
Best Mobile App : Oscar
Robust mobile app that offers rewards for walking
$0 virtual care with most plans
Offers catastrophic plans in some states
2-star healthcare.gov rating
Only available in 21 states
Oscar lets you manage your health insurance with a convenient mobile app, which you can use to schedule free virtual care, track your deductible, review claims, access lab results and prescriptions, and more. The app even syncs with Apple Health and Google Health, allowing you to earn up to $75 in Amazon gift cards each year for walking. Oscar also offers catastrophic plans in some states, and generally offers low premiums for bronze and silver plans, though costs vary by state. For example, Oscar offers the cheapest bronze plans in Florida.
Members also get some nice benefits, including $0 virtual care with most plans and a dedicated care team. And the company offers every medical management program available in most states, making it a great option for enhanced coverage if you have specific health issues.
But Oscar’s plans only get 2 stars at healthcare.gov. And the company only offers plans in 21 states. Still, if Oscar offers plans in your area, the company is worth considering for the convenience of the Oscar platform along with affordable pricing in some states. Oscar was also our top pick for the Best Affordable Health Insurance Companies.
Best for Customer Satisfaction : Kaiser Permanente
5-star healthcare.gov rating
4.3-star average NCQA rating
Top-ranked by J.D. Power in all regions where available
Offers cheap minimum coverage plans in some states
Only available in 8 states and the District of Columbia
Kaiser Permanente consistently receives glowing third-party ratings, indicating the company offers an excellent experience for its members. Its plans are rated 5 stars on healthcare.gov, and the average NCQA rating for member experience across plans is 4.3 stars. Plus, Kaiser is the top-ranked company for customer satisfaction by J.D. Power in every state where the company offers plans. No other insurance provider is held in such high regard. The company also offers a variety of medical management programs that provide enhanced coverage for certain conditions.
Kaiser Permanente’s pricing varies by state. However, catastrophic health insurance plans from Kaiser are available in several states at affordable premiums. You may be able to get a cheaper catastrophic plan from Blue Cross Blue Shield, but Kaiser’s customer satisfaction ratings can’t be beat. If Kaiser’s plans are available at an affordable premium in your state, we highly recommend choosing the provider. But since the company only offers coverage in eight states and the District of Columbia, it won’t be an option for everyone.
Best for Virtual and Urgent Care : Aetna
$0 MinuteClinic visits with most plans
$0 virtual care with most plans
3.4-star average NCQA rating
Mixed reviews for customer satisfaction
With Aetna’s plans, you get access to MinuteClinic locations nationwide in select CVS and Target stores. You can walk in or make an appointment online for a variety of services, with access to evening and weekend hours, and you can even get your prescription filled on-site if it’s medically appropriate. Most visits will be free with most plans. You can also schedule free virtual care at any time. Together, these benefits can help you save money on urgent care or emergency care.
Aetna is also generally well-rated, with a 3.4-star average rating from the NCQA and an A (Excellent) financial strength grade from AM Best. And though pricing varies by state, we found Aetna’s plans to be generally affordable, especially for bronze and silver plans—for example, the company offers some of the cheapest bronze plans in Texas. However, Aetna’s customer satisfaction ranking in the J.D. Power 2022 U.S. Commercial Member Health Plan Study varies by region. In some states, like Texas and Florida, the company is ranked above average, while it fares worse in some other areas.
The best health insurance provider for you will depend on the options and pricing available in your state. But in most states, Blue Cross Blue Shield offers the cheapest catastrophic plans for college students who don’t expect to visit the doctor and are comfortable with risking higher out-of-pocket costs in the event of an emergency. In some states, Kaiser Permanente offers catastrophic plans as well. Kaiser is our top pick for college students looking for the best customer experience.
Oscar and Aetna are excellent options for digitally minded college students looking for convenience, since both offer a mobile app and $0 virtual care. In addition, Aetna offers free MinuteClinic visits with most plans, which makes it a great option for students with a CVS MinuteClinic location nearby.
Frequently Asked Questions
How Long Can You Stay on Your Parents’ Insurance?
You’re allowed to stay on your parents’ health plan until December 31 of the year you turn 26 in most states. That’s true even if you get married, have a baby, start college, move out of your parents’ house, or decline job-based coverage. Even if you’re not claimed as a dependent for tax purposes, you can keep coverage under your parents’ health insurance policy. In some states, you can request to remain on your parents’ plan even longer. If you need to buy health insurance, look for a marketplace plan in your state or on the federal exchange.
What Is a Health Insurance Copayment?
A copayment is a fixed share of the cost for certain services and medications. On some plans, you need to pay the deductible before copays kick in. On others, you don’t. The best health insurance companies don’t require that you pay your deductible first. For example, let’s say you have a $1,000 deductible and a $20 primary care doctor (PCP) copay. If PCP visits aren’t subject to the deductible, you’ll pay $20 to visit your doctor before (and after) you’ve met the deductible. But if PCP visits are subject to the deductible, you’ll pay the full cost until you’ve paid $1,000 toward the deductible.
What Is a Deductible in Health Insurance?
A deductible is a set amount you’ll pay for covered health services before your plan begins to cover your care. Once you’ve met your deductible by paying for health services out-of-pocket, you’ll only pay a copayment or coinsurance when you need care. Some affordable health insurance plans also have separate deductibles for specific items, such as prescription drugs. However, unlike an auto insurance deductible, your health insurance deductible may not apply to all services. For example, many plans will pay for your annual checkup or for disease management before you meet your deductible.
What Is a Catastrophic Plan?
Catastrophic plans are plans with low premiums and high deductibles designed for people with very low health needs. These plans are generally only available to people under 30 or those who qualify for a hardship or affordability exemption. Catastrophic plans cover three primary care visits before you’ve met your deductible, and like other plans, offer preventative care at no cost. You should be aware that you can’t use your premium tax credit to pay for a catastrophic plan, so a bronze or silver plan may be more affordable if you qualify.
To determine the best health insurance companies for college students, we considered criteria in the following categories.
Customer satisfaction: We used NCQA ratings, primarily, and healthcare.gov ratings, secondarily, to measure this criteria.
State availability: This measure indicates how widely available plans are across the U.S.
Plan features: For each company, we collected information and analyzed whether it offered the following:
- Types of plans: HMO, PPO, EPO, POS, and other plan types
- Plan benefits: Programs to help manage asthma, heart disease, depression, diabetes, pain, high cholesterol and blood pressure, pregnancy, low back pain, and weight loss
- Dental coverage: Coverage for child dental, adult dental, both, or neither included with health plans
- Metal levels: Bronze, silver, gold, and platinum plans and catastrophic coverage
Cost to value: We compared physician copays, specialist copays, monthly premiums, and deductibles for bronze and silver plans across different age groups across two ZIP codes, representing the highest enrollment in ACA plans by state.
Premium tax credit reduction: We researched and compared the percentage of plan premiums eligible for reduction by the premium tax credit.