What are the Differences Between Nursing School Approval and Accreditation?

Nursing school approval and accreditation are both important, and they are something prospective students should look for when exploring different nursing programs. However, these designations are not the same. When nursing schools receive approval, it means they’ve been sanctioned by the board of nursing in the state where the school is located. On the other hand, accreditation is provided after a review of a nursing education program by a nongovernmental organization to ensure it meets the standards of the field.

There are several ways that nursing school approval and accreditation are different, and they both provide benefits for schools and students alike. Below we explore what these benefits are and what they mean for those looking for nursing degree programs.

Who Grants These Designations?

The organizations that grant approval and accreditation designations are all important, but are also very different. Approvals are provided by state boards of nursing, such as the North Dakota Board of Nursing, the Connecticut Board of Examiners for Nursing, the Rhode Island Board of Nurse Registration and Nursing Education, and the Iowa Department of Inspections, Appeals, & Licensing. As a result, the approval standards boards use may vary from one state to the next.

On the other hand, nursing program accreditation organizations are not affiliated with the government, but are required to meet the standards of the U.S. Department of Education. There are several organizations that provide accreditation, which operate on both the national and regional levels. In addition, accreditation is also provided to specialty programs, so schools offering programs in different disciplines of nursing can receive a separate designation.

On the national level, programs are accredited by the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) and the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE). The ACEN is responsible for accrediting degree programs on multiple levels, from diplomas to certificates to doctorates. On the other hand, the CCNE, which is part of the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), accredits bachelor’s and graduate degrees, as well as residency programs.

In some cases, schools may not have a specific nursing accreditation, but they may have an institutional accreditation from a regional body. Some of these organizations include the New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE), the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU), the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC), and the WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC).

Students who want to pursue a specialization in nursing may be able to find a program that has received a stamp of approval from a specialty accrediting body. Some examples of specialty accreditation organizations include the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses, the Accreditation Commission for Midwifery Education, and the Council on Accreditation of Nurse Anesthesia Educational Programs.

How are the Designations Granted?

Both approval and accreditation designations are granted to nursing schools based on the quality of their programs and the benefits that students will reap from having completed a degree from one. In the case of approvals, schools must ensure that students are prepared to complete their state licensure examination and be able to provide patient care in a safe and competent way based on state standards. State boards of nursing do not approve an entire nursing school or department, but rather each program on an individual level.

In order to evaluate programs for approval, boards of nursing look at several characteristics. For example, one of the criteria is graduation rate, so the number and percentage of students who graduate from the program on time are weighed. Also, student outcomes are considered, which means that by the end of the program, students’ qualities, behaviors, and characteristics are evaluated.

Another major area of consideration for nursing program approval is its quality indicators, which include the program director, faculty members, curriculum, and clinical experiences. Also, depending on the state, approval may only be granted to programs that have already received a national accreditation.

Nursing program accreditation is also a rigorous process designed to ensure students are equipped with the skills and knowledge they need to deliver effective and safe care. For example, the CCNE accreditation process is a 12- to 18-month affair that includes an on-site evaluation and an extensive review of the program. Similarly, the accreditation process of the Council on Accreditation of Nurse Anesthesia Educational Programs includes evaluations of the resources a program offers to students, the subjects covered in the program curriculum, the backgrounds and expertise of faculty members, and student outcomes after completion.

How do Nursing Students Benefit?

First and foremost, nursing school approvals should be a vital concern for prospective students because they need to enroll in an approved school to be eligible to take the NCLEX-RN and NCLEX-PN examinations and obtain their license. Additionally, since approvals are granted by the government, all nursing programs are subject to the practice standards of the state. If a program is not meeting expectations, it can be shut down—which means students are spared from attending a substandard program.

Although accreditation is not mandatory, it should still carry a lot of weight when evaluating nursing programs. After going through the challenging process of getting accredited, you can be sure that schools have the high-quality curriculum, expert faculty, and the technologies you need to become a successful nurse. This seal of approval is important, whether a program has received a general or a specialty accreditation.

How do Nursing Schools Benefit?

Just as students benefit from the accreditation and approval of a nursing program, the school itself also benefits from these designations. Approvals ensure that schools are always keeping their standards in line with what the state they’re located in expects, so students can confidently enroll in these programs knowing they’re going to get the education they need to pass the licensing examination and meet employer expectations.

Similarly, accreditation benefits schools because it can become a strong selling point to woo potential students. Having that extra layer of scrutiny put on a program ensures that students are getting the high-quality education they deserve, and when programs go the extra mile to get that validation, it can make a program much more attractive.

Accreditation and approval are important for nursing programs in somewhat different ways. However, it all culminates in nursing students learning the skills and knowledge they need to pursue their careers, or to advance if they currently work as nurses.