Navigating Student Health Plans: Insights from Our Third National Student Benchmark Survey

Ancillary Coverages, Costs and Coverage, International Students, Risk Management, Student Health, Value-Added Benefits

by Elizabeth Marks, Senior Strategy Consultant

Good healthcare is connected to student success. Understanding student health plans helps insurers develop cost-saving strategies and support mental health needs. Analyzing trends and learning from student programs improves healthcare outcomes and enrollment rates, ensuring access for all students. In addition, creative solutions developed within student programs can serve as helpful inspiration for employee benefits teams.

With that, we’re pleased to present the findings of Risk Strategies’ Third National Student Benchmarking Survey, conducted between May and August 2023. The report features key findings around priorities and trends surrounding student health plans.

Managing Student Health Plan Costs Creatively

This year’s survey revealed a slight shifting of priorities. For the third consecutive year, 94% of respondents prioritize managing student health plan costs, up from 89% last year. Following closely at 81% is the focus on improving plan value, which aligns with cost management efforts. Offering benefits that students value – without increasing cost – will make the plan more attractive. When students and their parents see the value, plan enrollment will increase.  One effective approach to counter rising costs is integrating and promoting cost-effective programs, like telehealth with no copay for virtual visits.

Addressing Mental Health Needs

Addressing mental health needs ranked as the third most common priority for colleges and universities at 74%, which was tied for the number one spot last year. With a persistent focus on student mental health, colleges seem to be responding by integrating wellness programs. Nearly three-quarters of respondents now offer such programs, primarily featuring therapy visits, 24/7 crisis management, and access to psychiatric care.

Traditionally, students seeking in-person visits for mental health services faced the challenge of finding a provider and enduring weeks-long wait times. Risk’s pioneering telehealth program revolutionizes this process, granting students rapid access to behavioral health services at a lower cost, bypassing the traditional insurance system. Typically, upon initiating the process, students can schedule a virtual therapy session within 48 hours. Despite its value, the cost is very low and can be included in the student health insurance plan. The claims for these services are paid outside the plan.

Data Analytics and Cost Management

Data analytics is now essential in managing student health plan costs, with 74% of colleges and universities recognizing its importance. By leveraging data analytics, institutions can identify cost drivers, understand high utilization patterns, and optimize plan value. Historically, student health plans have lagged behind employer plans in this effort, due in part to the fact that most plans are fully insured versus self-funded.  Regardless, integrating advanced analytics techniques from employer benefits programs can further enhance the effectiveness of student health plans, enabling proactive cost management and improved health outcomes.

To this end, Risk Strategies is developing an analytics portal to consolidate data from all carriers across our client base into a single data warehouse. Through collaboration with Risk Consulting and their data analytics tool, we aim to integrate survey data with analytics insights, bolstering our ability to deliver comprehensive solutions.

Enrollment Trends and Dynamics

Enrollment in student health insurance plans is on the rise, with average enrollment increasing from 24% in 2022 to 29% in 2023, primarily among schools with 20,000 or more students. The dominant enrollment process remains waiver/opt-out, with close to three in four colleges verifying coverage.

At Risk Strategies, we’ve observed that students must provide proof of coverage, prompting concerns about coverage longevity. To manage waivers, we conduct verifications, revealing a growing trend among colleges to verify 100% of students with alternative coverage. These verifications are facilitated through a clearinghouse, ensuring the validity of coverage claims. Remarkably, the number of schools verifying 100% of waivers has surged to 85% from 70% in 2022.

Effective enrollment initiatives are fundamental for colleges to ensure that every student has access to essential healthcare services. Through personalized health plan options and the removal of enrollment obstacles, colleges can increase the number of students participating in these programs, thereby extending healthcare benefits to a broader spectrum of the student population. This not only enhances the overall well-being of students but also promotes a healthier and more inclusive campus community.

Comparing Employee Benefits and Student Health Programs

Student health plans are designed to cover the unique student demographic population.  The goal of managing these plans is to keep benefits consistent and cost increases minimal year over year. This strategy has been largely successful compared to employee benefit plans.

Based on survey data (Mercer and Kaiser Family Foundation), the average cost of employer-sponsored health plans increased from 5.2% to 7% in 2003 and ongoing increases are expected in 2024.  In contrast, our survey indicates that the average student health cost was 4.7% in the 2023- 24 plan year. Unlike employer health projections, we are not expecting a sharp increase for 2024-25. In addition, student health plans have not experienced the leveraging effect of the overall medical trend expected when the underlying benefits remain the same, as they have for the last three years.

What student health does well is focusing on the specific needs of our population and embracing new approaches and technologies. The 2022 Healthy Minds survey indicated that more than 60% of students experienced a mental health problem. Behavioral health is a priority and offering no-cost visits through telehealth is a common practice. This focus on mental health recognizes the impact on overall health and academic success. We have found that students are also willing to accept new ways of accessing health care, such as virtual eyecare.

Higher ed institutions understand the importance of offering low out-of-pocket benefits and affordable premiums and are far less willing to cut benefits than their employer counterparts. This approach ensures accessibility and equity so that all students have fair access to essential healthcare services, regardless of financial status.

Get more insights into U.S. student health trends Our Third National Student Benchmark Survey offers insights into the state of student health plans across the U.S. and highlights the need for innovative strategies.

Download an overview of the results here.

Want to learn more? Find Elizabeth Marks on LinkedIn.
Connect with the Risk Strategies Education team at [email protected].