What Is Accreditation and Why Is it Important?

November 12, 2021 , Modified on April 27, 2022 · 5 Min Read

Reviewed by Shrilekha Deshaies, MSN, RN, CCRN

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What accreditation should a nursing school have? Learn why accreditation is vital and why you should only consider accredited nursing programs.

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What Is Accreditation and Why Is it Important?
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Nursing accreditation guarantees that a nursing school and nursing program meet the quality standards that ensure that graduates can safely practice as nurses.

The primary nursing accreditations in the United States are from either the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) or the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN). Most employers will not hire graduates of unaccredited programs and your credits may not transfer to other schools. This guide tells you what you need to know about nursing accreditation as a prospective student.

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Accreditation Explained

Nursing accreditation is the process of an independent, non-government peer review of a nursing program by an established authority. During this peer review, the accrediting organization reviews all aspects of a program to determine if its graduates are qualified to pass the RN examination and practice as nurses.

This review considers the school's curriculum, its teachers' qualifications, how many of its students pass the NCLEX-RN examination, and other factors related to the quality of its teaching. Schools maintain nursing accreditation through regular reviews after the initial accreditation. Nursing accreditation is different from approval, which is a government function run by state boards of nursing.

The Importance of Accreditation for Nursing School

Nursing accreditation measures the quality of a nursing program, according to objective standards as judged by peers. This protects the public and protects the program's graduates, since they know that their diploma has prepared them to work in their field.

Nursing accreditation ensures that the program or school meets quality standards. Employers often only consider graduates from accredited programs. Many state boards of nursing will only approve accredited schools and grant licenses only to their graduates. Unaccredited program credits may not transfer to other schools. Government grants and loans can only be applied to accredited schools.

What Accreditation Should a Nursing School Have?

They should be accredited as a college or university by one of the accrediting bodies recognized by the United States Department of Education. You can search the Department of Education's listing of accredited schools online. Institution-level accrediting organizations include the following.

What Accreditation Should a Nursing Program Have?

Within an accredited college or university, the actual program should also receive nursing accreditation. What accreditation should a nursing program have? RN programs should be accredited by either the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) or the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN). (Nurse midwifery programs and nurse anesthetist programs are accredited by other organizations, as detailed later in this guide.)

Both the ACEN and CCNE accredit nursing programs. Their standards for nursing programs are very closely equivalent and in terms of program quality, there is no difference.

The only distinction that might matter to you as a student is that the CCNE only accredits bachelor and master's degree level programs. ACEN accredits all levels of nursing programs from practical to doctorate.

The Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN)

The ACEN offers the widest range of nursing accreditation, including all nursing degrees and non-degree certificate programs. For degree-granting programs, it accredits ADN, BSN, MSN, and doctoral nursing programs, and also accredits certificate programs. The ACEN is led by a 17-member board of commissioners, who establish the criteria for certification and oversee the evaluation process.

The Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)

The CCNE only awards nursing accreditation to bachelor and graduate degree programs and to related residency and fellowship programs, so its scope is much narrower than the ACEN's. Like the ACEN, the CCNE is led by a board of commissioners, in this case consisting of 13 members. The CCNE is part of the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, but the board includes members who represent practicing nurses and members of the public, as well as nursing school faculty and administrators.

Other Types of Nursing Accrediting Bodies

In addition to the ACEN and CCNE, the Council on Accreditation of Nurse Anesthesia Educational Programs (COA) and the American College of Nurse-Midwives Division of Accreditation (ACNM) also provide nursing accreditation, to nurse anesthesia and nurse midwifery programs respectively. You might hear somebody refer to a state accrediting a program, but this usually means that the state board of nursing has approved a program.

Other Health Education Accrediting Bodies

The Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES) and the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) are accrediting bodies for health education programs and schools. ABHES is officially recognized by the U.S. Secretary of Education as “a private, non-profit, independent accrediting agency” and is acknowledged as a national leader in quality healthcare education accreditation. CAAHEP is the largest programmatic accrediting body and concentrates on career-specific schools or health science programs offered by an education institution (e.g., the nursing program, medical assisting).

How to Tell if a Nursing Program is Accredited

Any accredited nursing program should list its nursing accreditation information prominently on its website. In fact, if you don't see the accreditation information listed openly under categories such as “Accreditation” or “About Us,” that can be a sign that the program is not accredited. Similarly, schools should list their accreditation information prominently.

You can also check yourself. The Department of Education provides a searchable list of school accreditations. You can search current and past listings from the ACEN and the CCNE either by name or program type.

In Summary

While the nursing accreditation process is demanding for institutions, for students and prospective students, the choice between accredited and unaccredited programs is a simple one. Don't waste your time, energy, and money on a program that isn't accredited. Employers and other schools may not even consider you as having graduated at all, unless your program has received nursing accreditation.

Frequently Asked Questions About Nursing Accreditation

What does it mean if you attend an unaccredited nursing program?

If you attend an unaccredited program, it means that the program has not passed the standard measures of program quality. This means that employers may not consider you for employment, you may not be able to take the NCLEX-RN examination, and other schools may not accept your credits. However, schools and employers may consider graduates and credits from programs outside the United States that have received accreditation from their own country's accrediting authorities.

What is the difference between approved and accredited nursing programs?

Approval is a government function, and states issue approval of programs. You can see lists of approved programs on the state board of nursing's website. Accreditation is performed by peers and is not a government function.

Does institution accreditation guarantee program accreditation?

Institution accreditation applies to a school as a whole, not to programs within the school. While it's rare for an accredited institution to have unaccredited programs (unless they're just starting a new program), school accreditation does not guarantee program accreditation.

Can programs lose their accreditation status?

Programs are subject to regular review and can lose their nursing accreditation if they fail to meet current standards. However, this is rare, since as standards change, the accrediting organizations communicate the changes to all stakeholders and provide information and training on how to maintain standards. Accreditation organizations work with organizations that are at risk of losing their accreditation status to help them ensure their programs meet the latest standards.

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Reviewed by:

Shri Deshaies, MSN, CCRN, RN, is a nurse educator with over 20 years of teaching experience. She is a certified critical care nurse and has worked in various surgical intensive care units, including cardiovascular, trauma, and neurosurgery. She is a founding member of Nurses Serving our Neighbors which advocates for the homeless population.

Shri Deshaies is a paid member of the Red Ventures Education freelance review network. Learn more about our review partners.

NurseJournal.org is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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