Why Nursing School Accreditation Matters
By: Kathleen Gaines BSN, BA, RN, CBC
The Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) and the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) evaluate nursing schools and programs in the United States. Each school or program must meet ACEN or CCNE standards in order to earn accreditation.
Accreditation is the process that evaluates nursing programs to determine if it is meeting specific state and national standards. According to the U.S. Department of Education, accreditation is meant to:
- Assess the quality of academic programs at institutions of higher education.
- Create a culture of continuous improvement of academic quality at colleges and universities and stimulate general raising of standards among educational institutions.
- Involve faculty and staff comprehensively in institutional evaluation and planning.
- Establish criteria for professional certification and licensure and for upgrading courses offering such preparation.
The purpose of accreditation is to focus on the same standards and criteria across all nursing programs. This ensures that there is some level of sameness within the programs. The accreditation process ultimately improves the quality of nursing education and keeps the curriculum up to date on current trends in advances in nursing and healthcare. Accreditation continues to further the nursing profession and enhances the overall care provided by nurses.
There are other accreditation bodies for CRNA and midwife programs. This article will only cover two specific national accreditation bodies.
Why is it important to choose an accredited nursing program?
While there are many important factors when choosing a nursing program, accreditation must be the first step, especially when applying to an online nursing program. Non-accredited universities should be a HUGE red-flag for all nurses and students. If you are unsure if the program is accredited, please check out this website to see if the school is listed.
Attending an accredited nursing program allows students to:
- Receive federal financial aid
- Transfer credits towards the program
- Attend a graduate nursing program
- Job market competitiveness
What does it mean if you graduate from a NON-accredited nursing program?
Graduating from a non-accredited nursing program can be devastating especially because of the ramifications associated with graduating from a non-accredited program. While it is very difficult for brick and mortar nursing programs to function and not be fully accredited; it is often seen in online nursing programs. So, what does this mean for those students?
- Students who graduate from non-accredited programs have difficulty obtaining gainful employment but, they will not be able to sit for the NCLEX.
- Students that graduate from programs that are not accredited, whether an ADN or BSN program, will NOT be able to sit for the NCLEX. This means you will NOT become a Registered Nurse.
Interestingly, some states will let you sit for the NCLEX if the nursing program is non-accredited as long as it has been approved by the state board of nursing and it is allowed to operate. This is extremely rare and there are only severe hospital-based programs that fall under this category.
Look out for these 2 red-flags while you are researching nursing programs — they usually indicate that a program is not-accredited.
- The program is extremely cheap or extremely expensive.
- The program promises completion in less than a year - non-accredited programs will boast about obtaining an online BSN in less than a year. Due to the number of classes a nurse must take, this is virtually impossible. Be skeptical of these programs.
What are the main accrediting bodies for nursing programs?
The two main accreditation bodies in the United States are as follows:
- The Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN)
- The Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
The Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN), formerly known as the National League for Nursing Accrediting Commission, is an organization designed to support nursing education and ensure it is done in a safe, reliable, and consistent matter. According to the website, the purpose of the ACEN is as follows:
- The ACEN is recognized by the United States Department of Education (USDE) as a specialized accrediting agency for nursing education programs located in the United States and its territories.
- The ACEN is recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) for nursing education programs in the United States and its territories as well as for international nursing education programs.
- The ACEN accredits all types of nursing education programs, including clinical doctorate/DNP specialist certificate, master’s/post-master’s certificate, baccalaureate, associate, diploma, and practical nursing programs.
- The ACEN accredits nursing education programs in secondary, postsecondary, and hospital-based governing organizations that offer certificates, diplomas, or degrees.
- The ACEN serves as a Title IV-HEA Gatekeeper for some practical nursing programs and hospital-based nursing education programs eligible to participate in financial aid programs administered by the USDE or other federal agencies.
All levels of nursing programs are able to apply for accreditation through the ACEN. The nursing program must first apply for candidate status by paying a nominal fee and evaluating the following:
- Faculty qualification
- Program plan of study
- Resources used in the program
- Evaluation plan
- Catalog of courses
If the program is approved, it will then have two years to complete the entire accreditation process to meet the complete list of ACEN standards. The program only will receive final accreditation once all the requirements have been completed.
The Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) is considered the voice of academic nursing in America and contributes to the overall safety of the public’s health. This accreditation committee supports the continuous self-assessment of national programs to ensure quality education is delivered to all nursing students. According to the website, the purpose of the CCNE is as follows:
- To hold nursing programs accountable to the community of interest – the nursing profession, consumers, employers, higher education, students and their families, nurse residents – and to one another by ensuring that these programs have mission statements, goals, and outcomes that are appropriate to prepare individuals to fulfill their expected roles.
- To evaluate the success of a nursing program in achieving its mission, goals, and expected outcomes.
- To assess the extent to which a nursing program meets accreditation standards.
- To inform the public of the purposes and values of accreditation and to identify nursing programs that meet accreditation standards.
- To foster continuing improvement in nursing programs — and, thereby, in professional practice.
The CCNE approves accreditation for bachelor’s and master’s nursing programs. The CCNE evaluates programs based on the following:
- Mission and goals of the program
- Performance of program
- Utilization of resources
- Integrity of the program
Once accreditation is achieved through the CCNE, visits, self-assessments and peer reviews help maintain accreditation.
How does the accreditation process work?
In order for the ACEN or CCNE to accredit a nursing program, schools must provide information including,
- Program objectives
- Faculty qualifications
- Individual course content
- Program evaluation plans
- Student retention rate
- Student completion rate
- NCLEX pass rate
- Catalog of courses available to students
- Resources utilized in the program
What are the differences between CCNE and ACEN accreditation?
Both the CCNE and ACEN meet national standards with neither truly being better than the other. The CCNE uses more self-regulation through self-reflection and assessment while the ACEN follows a strict set of guidelines. Furthermore, the ACEN is an older organization and has accredited nursing programs longer than the CCNE.
The CCNE only accredited bachelor and master’s degree programs while the ACEN accredits all levels of nursing programs from practical to doctorate. Furthermore, the ACEN works closely with government agencies to provide additional assistance to nursing students which can be important. These services include financial aid, counseling, and job search services.
Fresno State Controversy
Most recently, Fresno State University acknowledged that their Mental Health Nurse Practitioner program was not accredited and therefore students would not be able to sit for their national NP examination. Approximately 60 students were affected by this development.
Students were offered a full tuition refund and other local programs offered current students’ acceptance into their programs. Unfortunately, none of the credits were able to transfer and for students that had just graduated – over two years were wasted. Students that had already sat for the boards and passed, were able to keep their certification as long as they completed an accredited program within five years.