Why don’t graduate students get dental insurance?

Date: January 2020



100 percent of graduate students have teeth. All teeth require semiannual cleanings, if not more, to stay healthy. So why don’t we get dental insurance? And, in case you didn’t know, the cost of X-rays and just one cleaning out of pocket is about the same as the current cost to add dental coverage for a year. What’s more, the coverage isn’t that great and requires significant out of pocket costs for just about everything except X-rays and cleanings. So paying for the coverage is a bit of a gamble on whether or not you’ll need additional procedures (and be able to afford them). 


“All Smiles”


Dear “All Smiles,”

Cornell does offer a dental plan that is available to all graduate students but I think perhaps you are asking why all funded graduate students aren’t automatically enrolled in the dental plan, similar to how all funded students are provided medical coverage in the Student Health Plan (SHP). It’s a great question! There are several fundamental differences between medical insurance and dental insurance that your question explicitly notes. Medical insurance plans, like SHP, are designed to pool risk across a large population. Most SHP members will remain healthy and require little medical care in a given plan year, while some will experience injury or illness. Only a few (hopefully) will have major illnesses or injuries with high-cost treatments. In this way all plan members have the benefit of protection for treatments that might exceed many hundreds of thousands of dollars with a plan that costs about $3,000 per year.

Dental insurance works a bit differently. As your question notes, 100 percent of students have teeth and everyone requires semi-annual cleanings so coverage for dental cleanings does not really involve significant pooling for risk. The focus is on prevention as all plan members will have predictable expenditures for cleanings and the costs will be passed to the plan. Cornell’s dental plan provides a maximum out of pocket benefit of $750 beyond in-network preventative services. That portion of the plan covers services such as extractions, root canals, or fillings. Some students may find it motivating to schedule their cleanings if they know that they’ve “prepaid” for them via the dental plan, whereas others may prefer to find a dentist that is outside of the plan’s provider network or use services that cost less than $278 cost of the plan. Ultimately, students have flexibility to make a decision that is right for them.

It’s also worth noting that graduate student funding comes from many different sources but nearly all are finite so any decision to enhance a benefit, such as adding dental insurance, requires an offset somewhere else. This is why we seek input from the GPSA and other students groups on their priorities. We’ve focused on growing stipends because we hear from students that they value having financial flexibility and have concerns about the cost of living in Ithaca. I’m happy to share your feedback with the GPSA leadership and ask where students would like to see future investments be made. If you’re interested in Cornell’s student insurance plans you might like to attend meetings of the Student Health Benefits Advisory Committee or speak with your GPSA representatives who attend the regular meetings. That committee, comprised of undergraduate, graduate, and professional students, develops recommendations about insurance benefits and offerings.



Jason Kahabka
Associate Dean for Administration