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New Fee on Some College Bills: It’s for the Virus

August 24, 2020
By Ann Carrns

New Fee on Some College Bills: It’s for the Virus

College students are used to seeing fees on their semester bills: activity fees, lab fees, athletic fees, technology fees, orientation fees and so on.

This year, some students are noticing a new item: coronavirus fees.

Faced with extra expenses for screening and testing students for the virus, and for reconfiguring campus facilities for safety, some colleges and universities are asking students to pay a share of the cost.

The level of testing and protective steps, and the associated cost, vary widely by campus. Some colleges are testing all students at the start of the semester, while others will also test repeatedly throughout the academic term. Testing is mandatory at some campuses, voluntary at others. “It really varies,” said Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

The University of Michigan is charging a $50-per-term coronavirus fee this year. Revenue from the fee will help cover the costs of testing and other pandemic-related health and safety services, a spokesman said. Details of the measures are still being worked out.

Merrimack College, a private institution in North Andover, Mass., is charging a “Covid mitigation” fee of $475 per semester to all students taking in-person classes.

The college requires students to test negative for the coronavirus before moving into their dorms, and plans to conduct weekly surveillance testing throughout the semester — with some 4,500 on-campus tests expected weekly, according to its website. Merrimack is participating in a college testing protocol offered by the Broad Institute, an initiative of Harvard and M.I.T. that developed a program to help campuses reopen safely.

The college didn’t respond to requests for comment. But its website said that even with budget cuts, the “extraordinary” costs of testing and safety measures “are difficult to absorb,” so a temporary fee was necessary.

Other colleges may still be calculating whether and how to charge fees, since plans for testing and safety protocols are changing daily as the start of the academic year approaches, health experts say. Students are already heading back to some campuses, but others won’t show up until after Labor Day.

“This is all still emerging,” said Elizabeth Marks, senior strategy consultant with Academic HealthPlans, which provides student health insurance plans at campuses across the country.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doesn’t currently recommend blanket “entry testing” of returning students, faculty and staff. The agency’s website notes that such a step hasn’t been systematically studied, and it is “unknown” if it would reduce transmission of the virus beyond what would be expected by using other prevention measures, like social distancing, masks and hand washing.

But many colleges that are inviting students back to campus are taking aggressive steps to avoid outbreaks. Large universities may have the infrastructure to conduct multiple tests rapidly on thousands of students, Ms. Pasquerella said, but smaller institutions may lack the facilities — or the funds — to handle a large volume of tests.

Baylor University said it was sending home test kits to all students, and is requiring negative results before students arrive on the campus in Waco, Texas. The school will also conduct testing throughout the semester. Baylor is covering the costs, a spokeswoman said.

Elon University, a private institution in North Carolina with about 6,300 undergraduates, is also sending home testing kits to incoming students. The university will charge students $129, but is giving them time to seek reimbursement from their health insurer or apply for a fee waiver before billing them. Students can seek tests elsewhere, at a lower cost, as long as the test meets Elon’s requirements. Random testing will occur throughout the fall, at the university’s expense.

“We know testing is imperfect,” said Jeff Stein, Elon’s vice president for strategic initiatives. But the school hopes that the tests, combined with other protective steps, will help contain the virus’s spread.

St. Michael’s College in Vermont is charging all students a “comprehensive” testing fee of $150 for the fall semester, which includes testing at the start of the semester and repeat tests during the fall. “We know that this is a particularly difficult time financially for many families and we wish we did not have to charge any fee,” the college says on its website.

Brendan Williams, senior director of knowledge at uAspire, a nonprofit group that advocates college affordability, said in an email that the group applauded colleges that were being “transparent” about the extra charges, rather than quietly folding them into general fees. But, he said, “we don’t necessarily agree with passing the costs on to the student.”

Several colleges noted that if the federal government appropriated money to help colleges pay for testing programs, they would credit all or part of their virus fees back to students.

Here are some questions and answers about the fees:

Will my health insurance plan reimburse me for college-required coronavirus tests?

Maybe. Many insurers, in general, cover tests for the virus only if they are deemed “medically necessary,” which typically means a patient has symptoms or an order from a physician. Screening tests for people who don’t have symptoms — which is what many colleges are doing — may not be covered at no cost.

St. Michael’s College acknowledged that possibility. “The college can provide families with evidence of the payment and what it was for so that they can seek reimbursement from their insurance company,” the website says. “However, our understanding is that most insurance companies will not reimburse for asymptomatic testing, which is what the college will be doing in nearly all cases.”

But Stephanie Cohen, an insurance broker near Washington, D.C., said major health insurers seemed “likely” to reimburse for tests required under formal college testing programs. She advised students to contact their health plans for clarification. Or students could visit their doctor to explain the situation, and request a prescription for the test.

If I get sick with the virus while attending college, will my campus health insurance plan cover my care?

Health insurance plans, including those created for and sold through colleges to students, cover coronavirus-related care and treatment in the same way they cover other illnesses, Ms. Marks said.

Even if a student is sent home because the campus switches from in-person to remote classes, she said, the health plan generally would cover care and treatment as long as the student remained eligible, which typically means the student is enrolled for a minimum number of credit hours.

My college bill includes a “student health” fee. Does that mean I have health insurance?

No. Most colleges charge all students a mandatory health fee, which typically covers the cost of primary care, counseling and health education at a campus health center; a per-visit fee may also be charged. But the fee doesn’t cover more extensive treatment. For that, you would need insurance coverage, whether through a plan offered on campus to students or through coverage you have on your own or through a parent’s health plan. (You can remain on your parents’ health plan until age 26.)

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