Nursing School Accreditation: What You Need to Know

Any school you choose should be accredited, but what do all of those acronyms mean? This guide breaks down what accreditation means, key types to know, and how it could impact your school selection and your financial aid.

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Angela Myers

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Expert Contributor

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Samantha Alperin

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Dr. Samantha Alperin is the founder and creator of My Accreditation Assistant and L.E.A.D. Educational Consultants. She has over 20 years of higher education and accreditation experience at both the departmental and institutional levels. As an independent consultant, Dr. Alperin guides departments of higher education through accreditation, providing hope, strategy, and continuous feedback throughout the process.

last updated

09/13/2022

In your search for the best nursing school, you may be overlooking one of the most important qualifications of a high-quality college program. It’s not the cost of tuition or what resources are available to students, though those are both important. A university’s accreditation is a crucial element to consider as you weigh your options. For nursing students in particular, the type of accreditation matters because going to a nursing school that isn’t accredited or has the wrong accreditation could jeopardize your professional future.

Any school you choose should be accredited, but beyond that, it should have the right accreditation. There are so many accrediting bodies, all with difference acronyms, so how do you know which ones your school and program should have? This guide breaks down the different types of accreditations and which ones you should look for, how schools get accredited, and how a school’s accreditation could impact the quality of education financial aid you receive.

The Cliff’s Notes on Accreditation

Accreditation is more than an acronym that colleges can put on their websites. It also serves as a stamp of approval for the university’s coursework. When a university mentions its accreditation, it is communicating to the public that it meets a high educational standard and its curriculum is competitive with other institutions. This stamp of approval from an accrediting organization impacts everything from the transferability of the credits you earn there to how much financial aid you can receive.

Accrediting organizations not only hand out accreditations, they also help regulate the quality of education because colleges must maintain a certain standard to keep their accreditation. To do this, schools must first undergo a rigorous accreditation process. After that initial process, accreditors continue to routinely check-in with universities to determine if a school continues to meet all requirements to remain accredited. During these check-ins, the accrediting body makes sure that the university or program is being compliant with the standards the organization has set out. Many of these organizations also regularly update their standards so that schools with their accreditation are using the most updated curriculums and the most effective teaching methods.

As a nursing student, there are three main types of accreditations you should look for when choosing a school and program. The three main types of accreditations are regional, national, and program specific. Each type of accreditation must be performed by an organization approved by the Council for Higher Accreditation (CHEA) and/or the United States Department of Education to be considered legitimate. But what exactly are the differences, advantages, and disadvantages of regional, national, and program specific accrediting groups?

Regional

Regional accreditation is given to qualifying colleges and universities by organizations that have been recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). The CHEA accrediting bodies each serve schools in a particular area of the country. Because these organizations are all accepted by the CHEA, credits from universities with regional accreditation can usually be transferred to any other university in the U.S.

In the U.S., there are six regional accrediting groups. While the majority of schools for each group falls within one region, each organization can accept applications from schools across the United States and from other countries.

National

Along with regional organizations, there are some organizations that give out national accreditation to colleges and universities. National accreditation isn’t as widely accepted as regional, so the credits from nationally accredited universities don’t always transfer to other colleges.

Usually, national organizations are focused on accrediting trade schools and career-specific schools. They can also focus on universities that offer specific certificates or have religious affiliations. Since national accreditation is more specific than regional accreditation, it is possible for a university to be both nationally and regionally accredited.

Program Specific

Along with national and regional accreditation, there are organizations that award program specific ones. These organizations are usually related to a specific field, and students who wish to pursue careers in certain professions may be required to attend programs that are accredited by organizations recognized by the profession. Business schools, accounting programs, medical schools, and law schools all have program-specific accrediting organizations. Nursing is another field where program-specific accreditation is necessary.

As a nursing student, you’ll want to make sure that your school’s nursing program holds program-specific accreditation along with regional and/or national accreditation. As an aspiring nurse, you must attend a nursing school that is accredited by one of the two nursing accreditation organizations to be eligible to get a master’s degree in the field, to transfer credits to another university, and to apply for most jobs in the field.

Which Accrediting Bodies Should You Look for in a Nursing School?

Regional:

Higher Learning Commission (HLC): As one of the oldest regional accrediting organizations, the Higher Learning Commission helps create and maintain equitable, fair institutions through its rigorous accrediting process. Specific areas of focus include a school’s mission statement, methods used for teaching and learning, and commitment to ethical and responsible conduct. While HLC can accredit universities around the nation and internationally, most HLC-accredited universities are in Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE): Over 515 institutions are accredited by MSCHE. Standards for a school to be accredited by MSCHE include missions, goals, ethics, student support, and educational delivery. While some of these universities are abroad or in other parts of the U.S., most are located in Washington, D.C., Maryland, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Puerto Rico.

New England Commission on Higher Education (NECHE): This organization accredits over 200 higher education institutions across the globe, focusing on several important factors including the types of degrees conferred, general education requirements, and the presence of a governing body. Many of these schools are located in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont. All members of NECHE are volunteers who work in higher education.

Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU): This commission accredits higher education institutions that meet their high standards for integrity, performance, and quality. Most schools with this accreditation are in Alaska, Montana, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Washington. It also accredits institutions in other states and abroad, including many universities in British Columbia.

Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACCOC): If you’re applying to a university in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, or Virginia, you should be aware of SACCOC because this organization hands out regional accreditations in these states. The commission also accepts applications for accreditation from schools in Latin America and in other states. When accrediting an institution, SACCOC ensures that the school has a clear mission statement, resources, programs, and services to meet its mission, and clear educational objectives.

Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC): This regional accrediting group provides universities and colleges in California and Hawaii with a regional accreditation. It also accredits universities in certain U.S. territories, such as American Samoa and Micronesia, as well as international schools in Southeast Asia. Unlike other regional organizations, WASC is privately owned. The organization has three accreditation committees: one for primary and secondary schools, one for two-year community colleges, and one for four year higher education institutions.

National:

Distance Education and Training Council (DETC): As the name suggests, DETC evaluates different distance education programs and online programs. They work at the secondary, postsecondary, and collegiate levels and can award accreditation to institutions in the U.S. and abroad.

Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges (ACCSC): If you’re attending a private postsecondary institution, it might be accredited by ACCSC. This organization specifically looks for private universities and colleges who are committed to student success in the workplace.

Council on Occupational Education (COE): This accrediting body looks specifically at universities and colleges that offer occupational and technical education at all campuses. Unlike other national organizations, COE only looks at associate degrees.

Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, Accreditation Commission (TRACS): If a university is accredited based on religion, it might be accredited by TRACS. This organization evaluates the curriculum of schools rooted in Christian teachings.

Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training (ACCET): This national organization identifies and evaluates different postsecondary programs offering continuing education. Many of the colleges the accredit have intensive English programs, career and vocational training, and certain religious and cultural groups on campus. Additionally, they evaluate corporate training departments and continuing education from professional associations.

Nursing School Specific:

Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE): This organization is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education to accredit nursing schools across the nation. It evaluates, accredits, and regulates nursing programs at the baccalaureate and graduate level as well as nursing residency programs.

Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN): This holistic organization not only focuses on accrediting nursing bachelor’s programs, but all types of educational programs for nurses. ACEN is equipped to accredit nursing programs at the baccalaureate, master’s, doctoral, and associate levels. Additionally, it can also accredit hospital-based continuing education programs and pre-nursing programs at the secondary or postsecondary levels.

Why Is Accreditation Important?

Accreditation is vital to a student’s short- and long-term success. An accredited school has proven, through a rigorous evaluation process, that it places great importance on your professional and educational future. It’s vital to attend an accredited school and an accredited nursing program for many reasons, including being able to receive financial aid and showing future employers see that you are qualified to work as a nurse because you have been properly trained through an accredited program. Take a look at the other important reasons you should attend an accredited university and nursing program:

It Qualifies Students for Federal Assistance, Grants, and Loans

To be eligible for financial aid from the U.S. Department of Education (DOE), a school must be accredited by an organization recognized by the DOE. You have a better chance of receiving federal financial aid if the university you attend is accredited by one of the regional or national accrediting organizations mentioned earlier. Additionally, nongovernmental organizations could check to see if your school is accredited when awarding scholarships and other types of financial aid.

It Can Impact Whether or Not You Get Hired

If you want to be hired by a state-funded hospital or healthcare organization, you most likely will need to attend an accredited program. Most state-sponsored employers are specifically looking for graduates from a nursing program accredited by CCNE or ACEN. Even if you don’t want to work in a publicly funded healthcare setting, it’s important to look at your program accreditation, not just the accreditation of your university. The program accreditation determines if you can apply for your nursing license. Almost every state has a nursing licensure program, and when handing out nursing licenses, they will look to see if a graduate’s program has the right accreditation.

It May Determine Eligibility for an Employer Reimbursement Program

If your bachelor’s or master’s in nursing is funded by an employer reimbursement program, you most likely will need to attend an accredited program and university to be eligible. While this can vary from employer to employer, most like to see that the college is accredited and that the nursing program has CCNE or ACEN accreditation. To make sure you can use your employer’s reimbursement program, consult with the human resources department about company-specific policies.

It will Enable You to Sit for Nursing Exams

To work as a certified registered nurse, you must first pass the NCLEX-RN examination. This exam is demanding, and in order to pass, you need to attend a rigorous program with the right curriculum. ACEN and CCNE make sure a program’s curriculum teaches you the material you’ll need to know to pass this examination. They also ensure these programs offer students resources that allow them to study for the NCLEX-RN outside of class. Only graduates from schools accredited by these organizations can sit for this exam.

It Helps Institutions Determine Eligibility for Transfer Credits

In the future, you may need to transfer to a different institution for a variety of reasons, even if you love your current nursing program. Credits from schools that are regionally accredited will transfer easier than credits from other schools. Additionally, many nursing programs will only accept transfer credits from programs with the right program-specific accreditation. By making sure your program of study has the right accreditations, you are giving your future-self more flexibility and opportunities.

Employers Look at Accreditation to Ensure Applicants Are Qualified

One of the first things most employers will look at is where you got your nursing degree. When they look at the university, they will want to see that it is accredited. Most often, they will look for a regional or national accreditation as well as a program specific one. Since nursing is such a specialized field, that program specific accreditation is more important than in other professions.

Accreditation Improves Healthcare

Accreditation doesn’t just help you get a job or ensure students will enroll at the accredited college. It also impacts the quality of healthcare for your patients. Accredited universities have proven that they can teach the necessary skills and lessons that nurses need to thrive in the workplace. Additionally, programs accredited by ACEN and CCNE require programs to have experiential learning requirements such as a nursing residency. The hands-on experience of a residency lets you get a taste for how to best help patients before you enter the nursing profession full time. By attending an accredited school and program, you are equipping yourself with the knowledge and experience needed to give your patients the best care possible.

How Do Schools Get Accredited?

While each organization has a different accreditation process, there are some similarities between these processes and the criteria they use when determining accreditation eligibility. Usually, a university will apply to an organization. From there, the organization goes through a lengthy and rigorous process to examine the school and ensure that it meets the organization’s missions and values. If it does, then the school is accredited. If not, the school’s application is rejected.

While this process sounds simple, this six-step process is actually pretty complex and time consuming. The following steps are crucial components of the accreditation process.

Eligibility

Before a school can submit their application for accreditation, they must meet the accreditation standards of the organization. Usually, these standards are listed on the organization’s website. For example, the Higher Learning Commission states all applicants must be operating under U.S. federal authority, while CCNE says a university must offer a nursing program to be eligible to apply. Often, the eligibility page will also state if the organization is one which accredits the entire institution, like HLC, or one specific program, such as CCNE.

Self-Evaluation

As part of the application process, a university must submit a self-evaluation. In this self-evaluation, a college discusses how it meets all the requirements for accreditation and how it adheres to the organization’s missions and values. With these requirements and values in mind, the school then evaluates its curriculum. Often, higher education institutions will appoint a committee of faculty and administrators to do this.

Application & Readiness Assessment

After the self-evaluation is completed and the application is submitted, the accrediting organization will examine them. After reading what the university has said about their own program, the organization will assess how ready the school is for accreditation and if they have met their requirements. At this stage, they might also look at how ready the institution is to maintain that same standard of education if accreditation is granted.

Curriculum Review & 3rd Party Assessment

Once an application has passed through the initial stage, it’s time for the organization to make their own assessment of the university’s readiness. For this, a third-party group, usually made of volunteers who work in higher education or employees of the accrediting agency, will review the university’s curriculum. In this stage, the organization’s main goal is to make sure the curriculum is rigorous and adheres to its standards.

Onsite Evaluation

To gain accreditation, it’s not enough for an organization to just review the curriculum. Most accrediting bodies will also want to see what education looks like in action. At this step, the organization will send a committee to classes run by the college to evaluate how the curriculum is carried out by instructors. They might meet with administrators or sit in on curriculum development meetings at this stage too. If an organization passes the onsite evaluation, they will be accredited.

Publication & Maintenance

Each year, a university must make sure it is maintaining the standards of the accrediting organization. Accrediting bodies will also usually require some sort of annual publication from each university about its curriculum and will make routine onsite visits. Each organization determines how often it makes onsite visits to monitor the educational quality of accredited colleges and what must be included in published reports by accredited members. Additionally, many organizations require universities to pay dues and attend conferences in order to maintain their good standing.

Interview With an Expert on Accreditation

We sat down with Dr. Samantha Alperin, an accreditation expert and higher education consultant, to learn more about the different types of accreditation and what nursing students should be looking for when choosing which universities to apply to. Learn what advice she offers on accreditation for nursing students.

Dr. Samantha Alperin is the founder and creator of My Accreditation Assistant and L.E.A.D. Educational Consultants. She has over 20 years of higher education and accreditation experience at both the departmental and institutional levels. As an independent consultant, Dr. Alperin guides departments of higher education through accreditation, providing hope, strategy, and continuous feedback throughout the process.

Q. Is it important for a school to be accredited on the national and regional level?

A: Yes. Accreditation, at least at the regional level, is important for technical, two year, and four year institutions, as it shows adherence to a higher set of standards beyond the university’s own mission and vision statement. It shows stakeholders that they are willing to meet and work for a process that ensures its constituents are obtaining the highest level of learning and advocacy possible by a committed faculty and administration who are willing to work above and beyond for continuous improvement, quality, and transparency. Accredited universities enjoy benefits from their accrediting bodies and must have an accreditation backing to receive federal funds to offer financial assistance to students.

Q. Are some accreditations better than others?

A: The word “different” might be more useful here than “better.” For example, the choice between joining a regional accrediting body or the HLC (Higher Learning Commission) would be for universities operating as sovereign nations under federal authority. A university that operates solely online might seek accreditation through DEAC (Distance Education Accrediting Commission) as its standards better align with such an instructional modality.

Q. How can accreditation impact financial aid packages?

A: In order to receive federal funding, a university must be accredited. Most universities cannot offer financial assistance packages by scholarships and donations alone so they must be accredited.

Q. Other than financial aid, what are some other ways accreditation can impact students?

A: Students looking to transfer from one university to another should know that most universities will not accept transfer credits from a non-accredited institution. Also, some employers “weed out” potential employees from non-accredited programs as part of their vetting processes.

Q. Beyond accreditation, what else should students look for in a university or program?

A: Students should look at the programs that best suit them; however, students should also be aware that an accredited institution has gone through such an arduous process for them to make their experiences as quality driven as possible in all areas from academic to student life. So, it’s another “check” that students can be assured by. There are also some programs (schools of architecture and law to name a couple) that students might have to work a few more years in the field before becoming licensed in those areas if they choose non accredited schools. Not a deal breaker, but just something to be aware of.