Nursing School Accreditation | CCNE & ACEN

Not all nursing schools or programs are accredited. Selecting an accredited nursing program can provide you with a level of assurance that the program you plan to invest your time, money and future in meets quality standards set by U.S. Department of Education-approved agencies. In addition, nursing school accreditation can affect your career since some employers may prefer, or be required, to hire nurses who trained in accredited nursing programs. 

Here are some things to know about accreditation and the importance of selecting an accredited nursing program.     

What Is Nursing Accreditation?

The U.S. Department of Education sets accreditation standards to help ensure that higher education providers meet certain quality standards. That department relies on private educational associations to act as accrediting agencies that use an external peer-review process. 

Agencies serving the nursing education segment include the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) and the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN). Both agencies accredit baccalaureate- and graduate-level programs. These may include bachelor’s in nursing degrees as well as master’s in nursing and Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) programs. 

Accreditation agencies use rigorous criteria in seeking to improve institutions or programs to achieve higher outcomes. An accredited nursing school program must meet certain sets of standards and continue to monitor and review their curricula in a self-regulatory process to ensure it is kept up to date and compatible with state licensing rules. Accreditation also strives toward continuous institutional improvement to help ensure that set standards continue to rise.

Nursing Accreditation Bodies

While CCNE and ACEN are the primary nursing accreditation bodies, there are other accreditation agencies for some specialty fields, such as nurse anesthesia and nurse-midwifery programs. Be sure to check that your prospective nursing program has accreditation that meets your educational and career goals.  

According to ACEN, there are three types of accreditation for institutional and academic nursing programs:

  • Regional: Education provided by state and nonprofit colleges and universities  
  • National/Institutional: Trade/vocational schools and career program offerings for certificates and degrees
  • Specialized: Programs, educational departments or schools within a larger, usually accredited, national or regional academic institution 

Initially, a distinction between CCNE and ACEN accreditations was that CCNE only accredited school nursing programs and not transition-to-practice or doctoral programs, but this is no longer the case. Both major accreditation programs are now quite similar. 

CCNE Accreditation

What is CCNE? CCNE is the accreditation arm of the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) that accredits bachelor’s- and master’s-level programs, post-graduate APRN certificate programs and entry-to-practice residency for nurses. CCNE provides accreditation to higher education and healthcare organizations that meet its set standards.

As part of their accreditation process, CCNE mandates that all degree programs and other types of programs include clinical practice experience for students. The agency has strict guidelines for clinical practice experience for both online and on-campus programs. This helps ensure that students have the appropriate clinical experience to practice at their nursing degree level. 

ACEN Accreditation

What is ACEN? ACEN supports strengthening nursing education, nursing practice and the public by providing specialized accreditation for all levels of nursing education and transition-to-practice programs.

ACEN helps to develop and evaluate standards and criteria for accreditation that include program missions, equity and outcomes, faculty and students, and more. 

Many nursing programs mandate ACEN accreditation for graduate-level nursing program admission. ACEN accreditation may also have these benefits for students:

  • Assurance that you’re investing time and money in a quality nursing education 
  • Help increase eligibility and access to federal and state agency/foundational funding 
  • Credit transfer facilitation
  • Validation that a program is committed to quality nursing standards

Specialty Accreditation

Specialized nursing accreditation bodies recognized by the U.S. Department of Education include the Accreditation Commission for Midwifery Education (ACME), which specializes in the education of labor and delivery medical professionals, and the Council on Accreditation of Nurse Anesthesia Educational Programs (COA), which accredits programs focusing on nurse anesthesiologists.

There are other accreditation agencies devoted to specialized nursing, including some that are not eligible for federal financial aid. One of these programs is the Accreditation Board for Specialty Nursing Certification (ABSNC), which accredits supplementary nursing certification programs rather than full degrees. 

It’s important to look up the specific accreditation in advance of your nursing school application to make sure that it’s aligned with your career goals.

Regional Accreditation

While CCNE and ACEN are national accreditation bodies, there are also regional accreditation agencies at the institutional level. ACEN-recognized regional accrediting agencies cover areas representing the entire United States, but they are institutional accrediting agencies. This means they accredit the school as an institution, not just the nursing program. 

Regional accreditation can help increase student access to federal financial aid. Nursing schools and programs that are not accredited by a U.S. Department of Education-approved accrediting agency can’t receive federal financial aid.  

Enrolling in a regionally accredited school also comes with the assurance of a trusted, recognized institution that is often nonprofit. Credits between regionally accredited schools are likely to be easily transferred. 

Why Is Nursing School Accreditation Important?

Nursing school accreditation is important to becoming a registered nurse and becoming a nurse practitioner. Accreditation can help assure that you are investing in a trusted nursing program that prepares you for and makes you eligible to take the NCLEX nursing exam or prepares you for state licensure. 

Accreditation is also important because it:

  • Helps to foster ongoing improvements in nursing programs and nursing practice. 
  • Promotes peer-to-peer review and advocates self-regulation.
  • Enables greater student access to federal financial aid.
  • Ensures that if students transfer to a new accredited school, their class credits will also transfer.
  • Qualifies graduates for nursing jobs, many of which specifically look for graduation from an ACEN- or CCNE-accredited nursing program.

It’s important to remember that not all nursing programs or schools are accredited by U.S. Department of Education-approved accrediting agencies. Be sure to look for this information when you’re deciding on the best nursing education for you.

Nursing Accreditation FAQs

Accreditation can be a complex and confusing topic. Read on for some frequently asked questions about nursing programs and school accreditation.

How can I check if a nursing school is accredited?

Lists of accredited nursing schools and programs are available from reputable accrediting agencies, such as the ACEN, the CCNE or a regional accrediting agency. Their websites may feature a database or search function that lets you look up nursing school accreditation. Often, the schools themselves note their accreditation status on their websites. 

What are the benefits of enrolling in an accredited nursing program?

Enrolling in an accredited nursing program may make you eligible for federal financial aid. It may also better prepare you to take nursing exams and pursue state licensure. An accredited nursing program may also ensure that an institution’s credits are transferable. In general, accredited programs are credible programs offering quality nursing education.

What accreditation does a nursing school need?

There are nursing schools that lack accreditation from nursing accreditation bodies such as the CCNE and ACEN. However, accreditation by a U.S. Department of Education-approved accrediting agency helps assure that a nursing program stays on track. Students may benefit from accredited nursing programs because they tend to be more widely recognized and valued by employers.

Which accreditation is best for nursing programs?

The most credible form of accreditation comes from an accreditation agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education, including CCNE and ACEN. The best accreditation for you may depend on the level of nursing degree that you are working toward. Some APRN specialties may have separate accrediting agencies. Ultimately, it depends on your personal career trajectory. 

What happens if my nursing school isn’t accredited?

There may be serious downsides. Your nursing credits may not transfer to other schools, you may not be as qualified or prepared to take the NCLEX exam, you may not be eligible for federal financial aid and you may have more difficulty getting hired. In the worst cases, you may not be able to take the NCLEX due to certain restrictions.

Can I take the NCLEX if my school is not accredited?

It depends on the judgment of your state’s board of nursing, but it’s possible that your state will not allow you to take the NCLEX if your school is not accredited. It may be a good idea to contact your state’s board of nursing directly to verify that the school you are interested in will qualify you to take the NCLEX.

Are there online nursing programs that are accredited?

Yes. For example, there are many online MSN programs that have CCNE or ACEN accreditation. These programs can be less expensive than other forms of nursing education. However, it’s always a good idea to make sure the accreditation is up to date and that the program meets your state’s requirements.

Last updated in March 2022