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Key Differences Between Regional and National Accreditation of Nursing Schools

If you are researching nursing schools, you may be curious about the difference between regional and national accreditation. Accreditation status is an important factor to consider because it reflects the quality of nursing education.

Knowing the types of accreditations and how they differ will help you choose the right school. In this blog, you’ll learn exactly that. Keep reading to explore the higher education accreditation process, how accreditation applies to nursing schools, and the benefits of graduating from an accredited nursing program.

What is Accreditation in Higher Education?

The accreditation of U.S. colleges and universities began in the late 19th century. The process has evolved since then, but the purpose has stayed the same. According to the Department of Education (DOE), accreditation aims to ensure that institutions meet “acceptable levels of quality.”

In the U.S., three entities facilitate higher education accreditation. They’re known as the Triad:

  • Federal Government: The DOE is the federal government agency that oversees higher education accreditation. It approves accrediting agencies but is not directly involved in the accreditation process.
  • Accrediting Agencies: Accrediting agencies are non-governmental educational associations. They develop the criteria for quality and evaluate whether institutions meet them. Institutions that meet the requirements are “accredited.”
  • State Governments: The DOE also recognizes state government agencies for accreditation. Some provide vocational college and nursing school accreditation.

Accreditation is a voluntary process unique to each accrediting organization. It typically involves a self-study, a peer review, and the decision to accredit. Once an institution obtains accreditation, it must renew it periodically.

Now that you’re familiar with accreditation, let’s explore the difference between regional and national accreditation.

What’s the Difference Between Regional and National Accreditation?

Colleges and universities obtain accreditation from regional and national accrediting agencies.

The agencies approve two types of accreditations:

  • Institutional Accreditation: This is the accreditation of an entire college or university. Both regional and national approve institutional accreditation.
  • Programmatic Accreditation: This type applies to programs, departments, and schools within an institution. Only national agencies approve programmatic accreditation.

Regional Accreditation

Regional accreditation is the earliest form of higher education accreditation. Many regional agencies predate their national counterparts. All regional agencies approve accreditation for entire institutions. The U.S. has seven regional accrediting agencies that operate within six regions.

In July 2020, regional agencies gained the right to approve institutions outside their geographic boundaries. For example, the New England Commission on Higher Education could approve colleges and universities in California.

The regional accrediting organizations and the states they serve are:

  • Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities: AK, ID, MT, NV, OR, UT, WA
  • Higher Learning Commission: AZ, NM, CO, WY, OK, KS, NE, SD, ND, MN, IA, MO, AR, IL, WI, MI, IN, OH, WV
  • Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, Western Association of Schools and Colleges: CA, HI, and American territories
  • Western Association of Schools and Colleges: CA, HI 
  • Southern Association of Colleges and School Commission on Colleges: AL, FL, GA, KY, LA, MS, NC, SC, TN, TX, VA
  • Middle States Commission on Higher Education: DC, DE, MD, NJ, NY, PA, PR, VI
  • New England Commission on Higher Education: CT, ME, MA, NH, RI, VT

The U.S. has over 3,000 regionally accredited colleges and universities.

National Accreditation

A key difference between regional and national accreditation is that national accrediting agencies can provide both institutional and programmatic accreditation—and many do. In the U.S., there are over 5,000 institutions and 39,000 programs with national accreditation.

Institutional Accreditation

Historically, national accrediting bodies have approved vocational and faith-based higher education institutions. Currently, the DOE recognizes 17 national organizations that provide institutional accreditation, including:

  • Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges
  • National Association of Schools of Art and Design, Commission on Accreditation
  • Association for Biblical Higher Education, Commission on Accreditation

Programmatic Accreditation

The DOE recognizes 33 national accrediting bodies for programmatic accreditation. More than half of these can also approve the accreditation of freestanding, single-purpose institutions. The national accrediting agencies that approve programmatic accreditation include:

  • American Psychological Association
  • American Dental Association
  • American Occupational Therapy Association

What Are the Differences Between Regional and National Accreditation for Nursing Schools?

Now let’s review how accreditation applies to nursing education. Accredited nursing programs are always part of an institution with regional or national accreditation. Nursing programs can also hold programmatic accreditation from a national and/or state accrediting agency.

Regional Nursing School Accreditation

Many institutions providing nursing education are regionally accredited. That means they have institutional accreditation from one of the seven regional accrediting agencies. For example, Saint Joseph’s College of Maine has had institutional accreditation from the New England Commission on Higher Education since 1961.

National Nursing School Accreditation

When it comes to nursing school accreditation, national agencies primarily provide programmatic accreditation—that is, the accreditation of nursing programs, departments, and schools.

Here are the national agencies that approve programmatic accreditation for nursing education:

  • American Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN)
  • Council on Accreditation of Nurse Anesthesia Educational Programs (CANAEP)
  • Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)

ACEN and CANAEP can also approve freestanding nursing institutions.

Most nursing programs are accredited by the ACEN or CCNE. For example, the Hybrid Accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing (ABSN) program at Saint Joseph’s College is CCNE-accredited.

Learn how to become a nurse in one year through a hybrid accelerated BSN program.

State Nursing School Accreditation

Some programs also hold nursing school accreditation from a state accrediting agency. Five state agencies can approve nursing schools, programs, and departments:

  • Kansas State Board of Nursing
  • Maryland Board of Nursing
  • Missouri State Board of Nursing
  • New York State Board of Regents, State Education Department, Office of the Professions (Nursing Education)
  • North Dakota Board of Nursing

With the addition of state accreditation, an institution providing nursing education may hold three levels of accreditation: institutional accreditation from a regional agency, nursing program accreditation from a regional agency (e.g., CCNE), and nursing program accreditation from a state agency (e.g., Missouri State Board of Nursing).

student studying at home

Why Choose an Accredited Nursing Program?

There’s a distinct difference between regional and national accreditation. But both types come with many benefits. Ideally, an aspiring nurse would choose an accredited nursing program at an accredited institution.

Quality nursing education prepares graduates for professional licensure, employment, and advanced nursing education. It also enables students to apply for financial aid and transfer schools more easily.

Quality Nursing Education

Nursing school accreditation ensures that candidates can achieve the expected program outcomes and meet professional nursing standards. Whether the accredited program is delivered in-person or online, accreditation standards are consistent, so students get a quality nursing education.

Accreditation standards for nursing education vary by the accrediting agency. Generally, accredited nursing programs demonstrate quality and continuous improvement in the following areas:

  • Governance: The institution, its faculty, and staff enable the program to meet its mission and goals through sufficient physical, fiscal, and academic support.
  • Curriculum: The teaching and learning practices, including clinical experiences, are consistent with the program’s mission and goals, expected student outcomes, and professional nursing standards and guidelines.
  • Student Support: The program is supportive, student-centered and embraces diverse candidates. It enables students to meet the expected program outcomes.
  • Faculty: Faculty have sufficient preparation in the areas in which they teach and engage in regular professional development.
  • Program Outcomes: Data demonstrate that the program achieves the expected outcomes (e.g., professional licensure pass rate) and continuous improvement.

Professional Licensure

Nursing graduates must obtain professional licensure to work as registered nurses. Each state oversees its professional licensure decisions. The nursing regulatory bodies in 24 states require pre-licensure nursing programs to have national nursing accreditation. So, attending an accredited nursing program will ensure you can sit for the professional licensure exam.


Nursing school accreditation can also improve your future employment opportunities. Some employers prefer job candidates who have graduated from an accredited nursing program. When you choose an accredited program, you’ll expand your employment potential.

Advanced Nursing Education

Another benefit of choosing an accredited nursing program is the opportunity to pursue advanced nursing education. Many post-graduate nursing programs require candidates to have a bachelor’s degree from an accredited nursing school. If you're interested in advanced nursing education, nursing school accreditation matters.

Academic Credit Transfer

According to the Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions, students who’ve attended accredited institutions are more likely to have their credits transferred to another accredited institution. So, it can be easier to transfer academic credits when you’ve attended an accredited nursing program.

Financial Aid

Financial aid eligibility is yet another benefit of nursing school accreditation. Choosing an accredited program can help with the cost of nursing education because only accredited institutions can offer students federal financial aid.

How to Search for Accredited Nursing Programs?

Numerous online directories are available to help find accredited institutions and nursing programs in the U.S. The Department of Education, Council for Higher Education Accreditation, Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education, and American Commission for Education in Nursing are just a few organizations that publish this information.

Why Study Nursing at Saint Joseph’s College of Maine?

Saint Joseph’s College is a regional leader in nursing education. The college holds accreditation from the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education and the New England Commission on Higher Education.

Saint Joe’s Hybrid Accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing (ABSN) is uniquely designed for students with a non-nursing bachelor’s degree. The one-year, full-time program enables students with no nursing experience to change careers and become BSN-prepared nurses.

Students benefit from integrated clinical placement services and dedicated support from enrollment to graduation. The highly respected program also provides a hybrid curriculum—100% online coursework with two immersions in the brand-new Center for Nursing Innovation on Saint Joe’s campus.

At Saint Joe’s, the community grows our talents, sharpens our ambitions, powers our innovations, and magnifies our ability to create a compassionate world.

Request a brochure today to learn more about the college’s Hybrid ABSN program.

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