January 28, 2019

EDITORIAL: Closing the Student Health Plan Affordability Gap

Print More

If you go to Cornell, you either have a health insurance plan or you are a clever rulebreaker. If your parents didn’t shell out for eligible private insurance, then you’re likely on the University’s Student Health Plan, which is comprehensive and student-tailored. Students with lower incomes can enroll in a related plan, called SHP+, free of charge. So for most, enrolling in a health plan is but a matter of setting and forgetting.

But not for everyone. Students who do not qualify for New York’s Medicaid program — i.e., those with incomes or parents’ incomes over 138 percent of the federal poverty line — also do not qualify for SHP+. They must instead pay the standard annual fee of $2,832 to enroll in SHP. The fee applies to a Cornell family of three subsisting off as little as $28,677 per year, or about $2,400 a month, for all expenses — hardly distinct from living in poverty.

This is the SHP affordability gap — too well-off for SHP+, but not enough to comfortably afford SHP. And for Cornellians caught in this muddy middle, the University offers little recourse.

Financial aid is meant to mitigate the cost of college. But Cornell only budgets $185 per semester, roughly 13 percent of the annual SHP fee, for all “health-related costs” in its estimated cost of attendance. This estimation, in turn, lowers how much financial aid students receive. The University, in its unwavering generosity, simply tells students who would struggle to pay the SHP fee to get a loan.

But why does Cornell budget a mere $185 if the roughly 12,000 students on SHP are expected to fork over $2,832? The $185 per semester figure covers the fee paid by those who retain private insurance plans and waive SHP enrollment. In other words, the University’s financial aid estimate assumes students will either waive SHP or find it otherwise affordable.

That assumption is not without basis. The median Cornell family has an income upward of $150,000. Cornell students hail equally from the top percent income bracket as from the bottom 40 percent. Just one in nine students come from the bottom 40 percent, let alone the bottom quintile or decile. As such, the hurdles over which low-income students must leap are poorly understood — true in the Student Health Benefits Advisory Committee (which advises on SHP) as in the Student Assembly.

All students should be able to afford Cornell’s premier health insurance plan — without taking on still more burdensome student loan debt. A fair benchmark of affordability might be the one Cornell itself offers: no more than $185 per semester. To achieve this, the University should provide need-based grants for students without eligible private plans to get on SHP. These grants would reduce the $2,832 annual SHP fee to just $370 a year, a meaningful step for students and families caught in the SHP affordability gap.