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What is Accreditation and Why It is Important to you?

Cathy Dearman By Cathy Dearman 

Accreditation has become an integral part of higher education (Brittingham, 2009). At any given point in time, scattered across North America, thousands of faculty members, administrators and staff members are preparing for an accreditation review. Without a doubt, all nurse educators will, at some point in their career, participate in the process of renewing their institution or program’s accreditation. Despite the pervasiveness of accreditation, many educators have not had the opportunity to cultivate their knowledge of the accreditation programs for nursing. This article is the first in a series of articles aimed at providing more information on this topic.

This article covers accreditation basics, including institutional accreditation in the US as well as basic details on nursing program accreditation. Subsequent articles will address each of the nursing accreditation programs and recent changes made to each program’s standards. Since accreditation is such a large and ever-changing topic, other articles may materialize with time.  

What is Accreditation?

Accreditation is a process that validates the quality of an educational program or group of programs by evaluating the development and delivery of the program(s) with respect to a set of published educational standards. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) has indicated that accreditation evaluates a program’s commitment to quality education and data-driven continuous quality improvement. Educational institutions or programs seek accreditation from a recognized accrediting body by completing an application and submitting to an evaluation conducted by their peers. While their processes differ slightly, accrediting bodies are responsible for

  • the development and maintenance of their published standards,
  • reviewing accreditation applications which generally include a comprehensive self-study,
  • coordinating the peer review process,
  • facilitating the approval/denial accreditation decision made by a body of commissioners and
  • maintaining the published list of institutions or programs that are accredited (Hegji, 2017).

Institutional and Professional Accreditation

In the U.S., there are two basic types of accreditation: institutional and professional. Institutional accreditation is used to assess the extent to which an entire institution has met its stated mission, goals and expected outcomes. Institutional accreditation programs are based on either regional or national standards. Institutional accreditation

  • is required for students to have access to federal student aid,
  • facilitates transfer of credits between institutions and
  • provides credibility to potential employers of the institution’s graduates (Fressola & Patterson, 2017).

The focus of professional accreditation is limited to the educational program and is intended to determine the extent to which a program has achieved its mission, goals and expected outcomes. Although professional accreditation is directed toward a program, there is some overlap with the parent institution in that most professional programs are integrated into institutions that provide funding, academic support services and organizational structure for them. This integration is addressed as a part of the accreditation documentation and review process. For example, universities generally maintain libraries that serve the needs of all students, not just one program’s students. Nursing programs typically contribute to the library but are not responsible for all aspects of their upkeep. Information about the institution’s library is generally provided in a program accreditation application under the “resources” section. This also applies to academic support services such as writing centers, counseling centers, etc.

The Importance of Accreditation

Accreditation is fundamentally important to students, faculty, employers, and loan agencies. Loan agencies can only provide federal financial aid to students attending accredited institutions. Faculty members cannot obtain federal or state grants, loans, and other funds unless their college, university, or program is accredited. Many students and their families check the accreditation status of an institution or program before they begin a program of study, and some check on this status periodically during the course of their studies. Many employers provide tuition assistance to employees seeking educational advancement at accredited institutions and programs.

The accreditation process also creates the opportunity for faculty and administrators to engage in ongoing quality improvement of all essential aspects of the program or institution, resulting in a self-study. A self-study is predicated on reflection by faculty and administrators and addresses key elements such as the structure of the program, adequacy of resources, and consistency of curriculum and evaluation processes. These elements are integral to the issue of maintaining a high-quality program of study.

A Very Brief History of Accreditation in the United States

The first regional accrediting agencies were formed in the US in the 1880s to provide consistent educational standards and admissions procedures (Flores, 2015). Because no universal standards existed, educators and administrators had difficulty determining the differences between programs at various levels, from secondary schools to graduate schools. Curricula varied from region to region within the United States and the curricula were inconsistent from institution to institution. This inconsistency in curricula and expectations for conferring a degree made it very difficult to transfer credits between institutions. Additionally, when foreign students immigrated to the United States, administrators had difficulty determining if they were qualified for college or graduate school. Flores (2015) asserts that colleges and universities created accrediting bodies to provide clarity for the educational process and to establish curriculum, degree, and transfer of credit standards through a peer-reviewed process.

The purpose and expectations of each accreditation program were clarified by the development of legislation, regulation, and oversight by the federal and state governments (ACICS.org). Subsequent recognition and regulation further strengthened and validated the peer-reviewed accreditation process. For example, the 1952 G.I. Bill, aimed at helping Korean War veterans, endorsed the existing peer review process for accreditation and established the need for students to attend an accredited institution in order to qualify for federal student loans (Wellman, 1998). The higher education act of 1965 empowered the U. S. Secretary of Education to recognize and thereby authorize accreditation agencies across the U.S. Accreditation agencies such as the Federation of Regional Accrediting Commissions of Higher Education (FRACHE) and the National Commission on Accrediting were formed thereafter as the umbrella groups to represent the approved accrediting agencies. The Council on Postsecondary Accreditation (COPA) was established in 1974 to consolidate these groups. In 1996, the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) was formed.

The Current Accreditation Landscape

Hegji (2017) and Flores (2015) each described a tiered process of accreditation within the United States, with each tier serving a specific purpose. At the top, all of the accrediting agencies in the US are overseen by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) or the United States Department of Education (USDE). Any private, non-governmental group seeking status as an accrediting agency must be approved by the CHEA or the USDE. These accrediting agencies are created for the sole purpose of validating the quality of higher education institutions and programs across the nation.

In the next tier, there are seven regional accrediting agencies, located in six distinct geographic regions of the country. These agencies oversee the accreditation of the majority of public and private non-profit institutions within their geographic area. In addition, national accrediting agencies provide peer-reviewed evaluation of institutions with a common theme, i.e., religiously affiliated institutions.

Map of Regional Accreditation Orgs

Figure 1. Map of Regional Accreditation Organizations in the US for Public and Private Institutions

 

In the lowest tier, there are many program accreditation agencies, most of which have a national geographic scope. As stated earlier, programmatic accrediting agencies operate to evaluate professional programs and single-purpose institutions.

Accreditation Figures

Figure 2: The relationship between accreditation entities in the US

Nursing Program Accreditation

There are currently three agencies in the United States which have met the United States Department of Education’s criteria to be labeled as agencies of accreditation for nursing programs. They are the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN), NLN’s Commission on Nursing Education Accreditation (CNEA), and the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE). There are other specialty accrediting agencies such as the Council on Accreditation of Nurse Anesthesia Educational Programs (COA) and the Accreditation Commission for Midwifery Education (ACME), but those agencies do not hold Department of Education approval to comprehensively evaluate entire nursing programs (Fressola & Patterson, 2017).

The ACEN (formerly NLNAC) is recognized by the United States Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). ACEN is approved to review and accredit all levels of nursing education from practical nurse to clinical doctorate including post-graduate certificate (https://www.acenursing.org/about/recognition).

The National League for Nursing’s Commission on Nursing Education Accreditation (NLN CNEA) is recognized by the United States Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education. CNEA is approved to review and accredit all levels of nursing education from practical nurse programs to clinical doctorate programs.

CCNE is an “autonomous accrediting agency” affiliated with the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) and accredits bachelors, masters, DNP, and postgraduate certificate nursing programs (CCNE, 2018 p 2).

This article has addressed the importance of accreditation for institutions, their stakeholders, and other interested parties and, through that discussion, has answered the questions: What is it and Why is it important to you? Future articles will address each of these accreditation programs in detail.

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