Accreditation is a voluntary review of educational quality. It provides students and employers with a shorthand method to judge the merits of an institution or program. The baseline standard for colleges & universities is institutional accreditation (i.e. regional or national). But it’s important to note that nursing programs have to undergo their own accreditation process. Learn more about why accreditation is so important.
RN to MSN Accreditation Agencies
Types of Accreditation
When deciding what school to attend to pursue a nursing degree, there are two different types of accreditation to consider:
- Institutional Accreditation: Institutional accreditation accredits the university or college in its entirety. Institutions can have either regional or national accreditation.
- Nursing Program Accreditation: Two major nursing accrediting agencies (i.e. ACEN & CCNE) are responsible for accrediting nursing programs.
Because programmatic and institutional accreditation are so important, universities will usually have an entire accreditation section on their website.
- You can double-check institutional accreditation status on the US Department of Education’s list of accredited schools.
- To double-check program accreditation, visit the ACEN or CCNE websites.
Note: It is possible for a school to have institutional accreditation (e.g. regional accreditation), but not have nursing programs with ACEN or CCNE accreditation.
Regionally accredited institutions are considered more prestigious than nationally accredited colleges & universities. If an academic degree is required (for example, a BSN or MSN), look for a regionally accredited institution first!
- Regional Accreditation: Regional accreditation covers all kinds of public (e.g. state universities) and private institutions (e.g. Marquette, Vanderbilt, etc.). 98% of regionally accredited institutions are not for profit or state-owned academic colleges and universities. There are six different regions across the country, and a regional accrediting organization for each. For more information about each, visit the CHEA website.
- National Accreditation: National accrediting organizations, while recognized by the USDE and CHEA, tend to accredit for-profit, faith-based and/or career-oriented institutions (e.g. Aspen & Capella). 65% of nationally accredited schools do not grant degrees (instead providing certificates and diplomas). While this doesn’t rule them out as potentially worthy educational institutions, RN-degree seekers should be especially diligent in researching schools with national accreditation.
Credible accrediting agencies are recognized and reviewed by the U.S. Department of Education (USDE) and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), the latter of which is a self-regulatory body comprised of colleges. You can find a list of recognized accrediting agencies on the US Department of Education website.
Note: When it comes to transferring credits between colleges, it is common for regionally accredited schools to only accept transfer credits from other regionally accredited schools.
Nursing Program Accreditation
Programmatic nursing accreditation is different from institutional accreditation. The Department of Education only recognizes two higher education nursing programmatic accreditors:
- Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN)
- Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
To accredit programs, CCNE and ACEN will set criteria regarding curricula, instruction, faculty qualifications and other educational standards. Programs that meet these criteria gain accreditation, thereby signaling to the outside world that they are committed to excellence.
Both CCNE and ACEN are highly reputable organizations. The major difference is the degree levels they accredit.
Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN)
ACEN has been accrediting international nursing programs since 2000. It accredits programs at career colleges and universities and it is recognized by both the USDE and CHEA. ACEN accreditation uses a peer-review process to improve quality in nursing education and meet the needs of the healthcare industry. The commission accredits all six levels of nursing in secondary, postsecondary and hospital-based nursing programs, namely:
- Master’s and post-master’s certification
- Clinical doctorate / DNP specialist certification
The ACEN-accredited program database makes it easy to search for programs by state.
Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
The other major accreditor, CCNE, only accredits programs at the baccalaureate level and higher, which means it doesn’t review programs leading to an RN credential. Established in 1998, CCNE seeks to promote continued improvement through comparing nursing programs’ outcomes to their stated goals.
It has its own CCNE-accredited program directory for baccalaureate & graduate nursing programs.
Commission for Nursing Education Accreditation (CNEA)
A third accreditor, the Commission for Nursing Education Accreditation (CNEA), was founded by the National League for Nursing and began accrediting programs in 2017. Therefore, its list of schools is much smaller than ACEN’s or CCNE’s. It covers the same full scope of degrees as ACEN — from practical to doctorate.
Note: The standard accreditations required for national certifications are still CCNE and ACEN.
Specialized Nursing Accreditation
Specialized nursing program accreditation, such as for anesthesiologists or nurse-midwives, also exists. If you’re interested in pursuing one of these specializations, your program will need an additional level of accreditation from the following:
- The Council on Accreditation of Nurse Anesthesia Educational Programs (COA) accredits anesthesia programs in 40 states (including territories).
- The American College of Nurse-Midwives Division of Accreditation (ACNM) accredits CNM/CM and CPM programs through the Accreditation Commission for Midwifery Education (ACME). ACNM’s website provides a wealth of information on all things related to the nurse-midwife field.
Why Is Accreditation Important?
Benefits of Accreditation
Accreditation does matter. Unaccredited programs may not provide the quality of education a student would want, especially considering the hours invested in learning crucial nursing skills. Attending an accredited school gives the peace of mind that a third party regularly checks adherence to certain criteria and does a level of due diligence the average degree-seeker couldn’t undertake alone.
- Regional Accreditation: Attending a regionally accredited school allows students to access federal and state funding, like Pell grants and direct loans. Students will also more easily be able to transfer credits from school to school.
- Nursing Program Accreditaton: An ACEN– or CCNE-accredited degree is frequently required for national certifications. In addition, some employers will specify in job descriptions that they want to see an MSN from an ACEN- or CCNE-accredited program.
Which Nursing Program Accreditation Is Best?
Luckily, both ACEN and CCNE are reputable accrediting agencies. The major difference between the two is the program levels that each accredits. And while it’s too early to be certain, CNEA’s affiliation with the National League for Nursing means it may soon have the same stature.
- The biggest issue is with programs without any programmatic accreditation at all. For example, in California, out of 141 schools with nursing programs, only 77 hold accreditation through either ACEN or CCNE.
- It’s difficult to generalize about programs that don’t hold national nursing accreditation — they could be fine. A quick scan of recent NCLEX pass rates in California shows that many such programs have impressive rates.
However, going to an ACEN- or CCNE-accredited school comes with more of a guarantee. These programs must maintain 80% pass rates to maintain accreditation and must meet similar markers for job placement.
Online RN to MSN Accreditation
Both CCNE and ACEN have the same standards of accreditation for online programs as campus-based programs. They also add an additional review focused specifically on distance education. This includes checking whether the faculty know how to teach online courses.
According to a U.S. News & World Report interview with CCNE’s executive director, Jennifer Butlin:
- Employers are particularly likely to look for accreditation with candidates who have taken online programs.
- They will not only look at national nursing accreditation (i.e. ACEN or CCNE) but institutional accreditation as well; they often prefer to see regional accreditation.
Prospective online students should also be aware that—because of differing state licensure requirements—online programs outside their home state might have different regulations and rules to comply with. These can be checked through the National Council of State Boards of Nursing website.
Unaccredited RN to MSN Programs
Accreditation status can easily be verified in the following ways:
- Reading the program listings on our website, which clearly identify accreditation status.
- Checking both the ACEN database and the CCNE directory.
Students who choose an unaccredited program may be left behind. Accreditation not only gives potential enrollees confidence about educational quality, but it also extends their options for continuing education and employment.
Additionally, State Boards of Nursing (BON) are increasingly preferring CCNE- & ACEN-accredited nursing programs for licensure exams.
State Boards of Nursing
In addition to accreditation, schools should also have approval from the relevant State Board of Nursing (BON). Accreditation and approval are not the same thing, but both are important. For example, an institution must have approval from the state board for a student to be eligible to take the National Council Licensure Exam (NCLEX). And schools must receive state board of nursing approval in order to admit students and grant degrees.
State boards do not accredit nursing programs. However, ACEN and CCNE both harmonize their accrediting criteria closely to state examinations.
- Some State Board of Nursing (BON) websites are clear about which schools are given full approval to conduct nursing programs and which of those are accredited. California is an example of this.
- Other states provide a list of schools that have board of nursing approval, but it is up to the prospective student to cross-check that information to ensure they have accreditation.
There are nursing schools that are state board-approved but lack national nursing accreditation. However, the tides may be changing. In Florida, for instance, the legislature made revisions to the law in relation to nursing programs, requiring that all nursing programs be accredited by July 2019. And in order to “[harmonize] approval processes,” the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN) has recommended that boards of nursing work toward national accreditation by 2020.