How Does Nursing Accreditation Work? And Which Accreditor Is Best?

Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.
Updated November 16, 2023
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Accreditation recognizes institutions and programs that follow the best practices for educating students. And in the nursing field, accreditation can make or break your career.

That’s because only accredited nursing schools effectively prepare graduates for jobs as licensed practical nurses (LPNs), registered nurses (RNs), and advanced practice RNs. In most cases, graduates from unaccredited nursing programs can’t earn a nursing license.

Attending an accredited nursing school is critical for becoming a nurse. But how does nursing accreditation work? And what is the best accreditation for nursing schools?

How Nursing Accreditation Works

Accredited nursing schools meet high standards for their teaching materials, faculty qualifications, and graduate outcomes.

Like institutional accreditation, nursing accreditation is a voluntary process. Nursing schools can choose to pursue programmatic accreditation with a recognized accreditor.

Two accrediting bodies evaluate nursing programs:

In addition to ACEN and CCNE, two smaller nursing accreditors evaluate graduate-level nursing programs. The Council on Accreditation of Nurse Anesthesia Educational Programs and the Accreditation Commission for Midwifery Education accredit nurse anesthesia and nurse-midwife programs, respectively.

As independent nonprofits, both CCNE and ACEN are committed to excellence in nursing education. The two accreditors establish academic and outcome-based standards for nursing schools. They also conduct regular reviews to ensure programs meet or exceed standards.

Nursing accreditation matters even after graduation. Nearly all employers only hire graduates from accredited programs.

State boards of nursing partner with accreditors to oversee nurse preparation programs. In most states, you must attend an accredited nursing program to be able to take the NCLEX-RN exam and apply for a nursing license.

The same goes for advanced practice nursing certifications — you must send transcripts from an accredited program in order to sit for your board exams.

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Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing

ACEN recognizes nursing programs that meet certain standards and effectively prepare students for nursing careers.

The organization traces its roots back to 1917, when the National League of Nursing Education published the earliest standards for nursing schools. Recognized by the U.S. Department of Education (ED) since 1952, ACEN is the oldest nursing accreditor.

ACEN accredits nursing education programs of all levels, from certificate and diploma programs to graduate programs.

In addition to accrediting programs offered at colleges and universities, ACEN accredits hospital-based training programs.

ACEN Standards and Criteria for Nursing Accreditationarrow-circle-right

  • Nursing Curriculum: Programs submit teaching materials, including course curricula, for accreditation. ACEN standards require that the curriculum follow “contemporary professional nursing standards.” Graduate-level programs must integrate “role-specific nursing competencies” into the teaching materials.
  • Faculty Qualifications: ACEN-accredited nursing schools must demonstrate that faculty are qualified to teach future nurses. Full-time faculty must be nurses who hold licenses consistent with their teaching responsibilities. ACEN also looks at the number of faculty and their experiential qualifications.
  • Student Outcomes: ACEN evaluates graduate outcomes in several ways, including an annual assessment of licensure exam pass rates. Programs must have at least an 80% pass rate or an above-average pass rate for the program type.

The standards above help ACEN evaluate programs and grant accreditation to deserving nursing schools.

As the accreditor explains on its website, “The goal of the ACEN is to be a supportive partner in strengthening the quality of nursing education.”

Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education

CCNE accredits nursing programs that “engage in effective educational practices.” When accrediting programs, CCNE emphasizes self-assessment and continuous improvement.

In total, the organization has accredited more than 1,800 bachelor’s, graduate, and nursing residency programs.

Founded in 1996 by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, CCNE is recognized by ED as a valid accreditor of nursing programs.

Unlike ACEN — which accredits nursing programs of all levels — CCNE accredits only bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral programs.

CCNE Standards and Criteria for Nursing Accreditationarrow-circle-right

  • Program Quality: Program quality covers teaching materials, institutional resources, and mission. For example, CCNE asks whether programs have an institutional commitment and the necessary resources to educate nurses. In addition, CCNE looks for bachelor’s course materials that reflect “relevant professional nursing standards and guidelines.”
  • Faculty Qualifications: Are the faculty qualified to teach nursing knowledge and skills? CCNE looks at the number of faculty and whether they’re academically and experientially prepared to teach in their field. CCNE also evaluates student-faculty ratios, whether faculty have graduate degrees, and clinical expertise.
  • Program Effectiveness: CCNE asks whether the program effectively prepares graduates for nursing careers. For example, CCNE looks for a minimum 70% program completion rate. Programs with high dropout rates may not effectively support students. Similarly, CCNE evaluates licensure pass rates as a measure of program effectiveness, preferring an 80% pass rate on nursing licensing exams.

By developing these strict standards, CCNE ensures that nursing programs effectively prepare students for successful healthcare careers.

“CCNE serves the public interest by assessing and identifying programs that engage in effective educational practices,” writes CCNE on its website.

ACEN vs. CCNE: Which Is Better for Nursing Accreditation?

When comparing nursing programs, it makes sense to check the program’s accreditation status. Choosing an unaccredited nursing school can mean a lower-quality education and fewer job opportunities.

But which is the better accreditation for nursing schools: ACEN or CCNE?

Here are the biggest differences between CCNE vs. ACEN, as well as some key similarities:

ACEN vs. CCNE Nursing Accreditation
  • Oldest nursing accreditation agency in the U.S.
  • Accredits nursing programs of all levels.
  • Recognized by both the Council for Higher Education Accreditation and ED.
  • Sets high standards for nursing programs.
  • Uses a rigorous, independent process to grant nursing schools accreditation.
  • Founded in 1996, more than 40 years after ACEN.
  • Accredits only bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral programs in nursing.
  • Recognized only by ED.

So which nursing accreditor is better?

If you’re considering an RN or LPN program, prioritize ACEN accreditation. If you’re pursuing a bachelor’s, master’s, or doctorate in nursing, you can choose a program accredited by either ACEN or CCNE.

Ultimately, it’s important to just choose an accredited nursing program — whether the program is accredited by CCNE or ACEN doesn’t matter much. Both agencies use rigorous accreditation processes to ensure nursing students get a high-quality education.

Other factors, such as graduate placement rates, nursing specialization, financial aid opportunities, and licensing exam pass rates, matter far more for students than which of the two nursing accreditors a program has.

Frequently Asked Questions About Nursing Accreditation

question-mark-circleWhy is nursing accreditation so important?

Accredited nursing schools follow the best practices for training nurses. Their faculty hold the academic and experiential training necessary to teach nursing skills. What’s more, their graduates typically pass licensure exams at high rates.

Prospective nursing students should always choose an accredited program. Attending an unaccredited program could prevent you from being able to get a nursing license and limit your job opportunities.

question-mark-circleWhat accreditation should a nursing school have?

Nursing schools should hold programmatic accreditation from either ACEN or CCNE. The two accreditors are recognized by the U.S. Department of Education for their high standards.

ACEN and CCNE both evaluate nurse education programs using outcome-based metrics. Graduates from an accredited nursing school also qualify for state licensure.

Some advanced practice nursing programs may hold additional accreditation from the Council on Accreditation of Nurse Anesthesia Educational Programs or the Accreditation Commission for Midwifery Education.

If you’re an RN interested in becoming a nurse anesthetist or nurse-midwife, you can benefit from choosing a nursing school that also holds accreditation from one of these more specialized accrediting agencies.

question-mark-circleWhat is the difference between CCNE and ACEN accreditation?

Although both CCNE and ACEN accredit nursing programs, ACEN accredits programs of all levels, from LPN diplomas to doctorates in nursing, whereas CCNE only accredits bachelor’s and graduate programs.

These nursing accreditors develop standards based on faculty qualifications, curricula, and graduate outcomes. When choosing a nursing program, check for CCNE or ACEN accreditation.

question-mark-circleWhat happens if a nursing school loses accreditation?

If a nursing school loses accreditation, you may have trouble transferring to another program or pursuing licensure.

Nursing accreditors regularly review accredited programs to ensure they continue to meet high standards. If a program fails to meet the criteria, the accreditor can put the program on probation or even withdraw accreditation.

Current students may be unable to take the NCLEX-RN or other licensing exams if their nursing school loses accreditation. Losing accreditation typically does not affect graduates who already hold a nursing license.

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