01 – Deep Dive into Graduate-level Education

Deep Dive into Graduate-level Education

Written by Nell Ard, PhD, RN, CNE, ANEF, Director at the ACEN

Does the ACEN accredit graduate-level programs?

The ACEN has a deep history of accreditation at the master’s level. As the oldest and longest-standing nursing accrediting agency, the ACEN was initially recognized by U.S. Department of Education (USDE) in 1952 as one of the first accrediting agencies; this recognition included master’s-level education. Other milestones related to graduate education include:

  • In 1958, the National League for Nursing created the Council of Baccalaureate and Higher Degree Programs to review the accreditation process of these program types.
  • The ACEN was also recognized by the USDE to accredit certificate programs, which include the post-master’s certificate either as a component of a master’s program or as a stand-alone certificate program.
  • In 2007, the ACEN developed the Standards and Criteria for the clinical doctorate level and began accrediting these programs in 2009.
  • Clinical doctorate accreditation through the ACEN was recognized by the CHEA in 2011 and by the USDE in 2012 during their respective reviews.
  • In 2019, the ACEN began accrediting DNP specialist certificate program options as a component of the DNP program or as a stand-alone program.
  • Additionally, the ACEN is also recognized by both the USDE and the CHEA to accredit programs utilizing distance education.

Today, the ACEN accredits all six program types of nursing in the United States, including master’s degree and clinical doctorate nursing programs.

How are the ACEN Standards and Criteria Different for Graduate Programs?

The majority of the 2017 ACEN Standards and Criteria are the same for all program types. However, graduate-level programs do have some differences. The first difference is in Criterion 1.5, which requires that the nurse administrator of either a master’s or clinical doctorate program have a graduate degree in nursing as well as an earned doctorate. If the master’s degree is in nursing, then the earned doctorate can be in any field. However, if the master’s degree is not in nursing, then the earned doctorate should be in nursing (e.g., PhD in nursing, DNS, and/or DNP).

Standard 4 is where the majority of differences appear in the Standards and Criteria. Criterion 4.1 requires that graduate-level programs identify not only end-of-program student learning outcomes (SLOs) for the program type but also requires that role-specific professional competencies be identified for each specialty program option (e.g., nurse educator, nurse practitioner, nurse leader). The ACEN allows programs to use nursing professional standards, guidelines, and competencies of their choice in developing graduate-level curricula. Graduate-level programs are also required to address certification requirements if any of the program options result in the student being eligible to sit for a certification examination.

Criterion 4.4 requires clinical doctorate programs address how the program prepares the student to practice from an evidence-based perspective as well as the collaborative production of clinically-based scholarship. Criterion 4.4 at the master’s level requires that the program prepare the student to be information-literate and practice from an evidence-based approach in both direct and indirect advanced practice roles. Criterion 4.5 requires both clinical doctorate and master’s-level students to practice in a culturally and ethnically diverse global society. The ACEN also monitors the program length (Criterion 4.8) and practicum experiences (Criterion 4.9) to ensure that requirements are met for the degree type as well as eligibility for certification examinations.

The final standard that has differences for graduate-level programs is Standard 6 Outcomes. Graduate-level programs are required to measure both the end-of-program SLOs as well as the role-specific professional competencies for each specialty area (Criterion 6.1). Additionally, programs are required to monitor certification examination pass rates for first-time test-takers in all certification examinations applicable to the program offerings (Criterion 6.2). Finally, the ACEN requires that graduate-level programs monitor job placement or career advancement based upon the additional degree that has been earned.

Are Accreditation Site Visits Different for Graduate-level Programs?

The accreditation site visit is the same for both graduate and undergraduate nursing programs. Typically, the site visit team consists of a minimum of three peer evaluators. For graduate-level programs, the ACEN ensures that a member of the site visit team has a current clinical practice either as a clinician or as a nurse educator. When graduate-level programs have APRN program options, then the ACEN ensures that at least one of the assigned peer evaluators also has a current APRN license/certification.

Can the ACEN Accredit International Graduate Nursing Programs?

Yes, the ACEN accredits international graduate programs. The ACEN is the only U.S.-based nursing accrediting agency that is recognized to conduct international accreditation. The CHEA recognition for the ACEN includes international programs. The same standards and criteria are used for both domestic and international nursing programs. The specialty options recognized in various international countries may differ; the ACEN ensures that any specialty options offered by an international program are recognized within the country. Currently the ACEN has one master’s nursing program accredited in the Sultanate of Oman. There are four international master’s nursing programs currently pursuing accreditation with the ACEN, and others have made inquiries. See the ACEN website for the programs currently accredited by the ACEN as well as those who have achieved candidate status.


As you can see, the ACEN has deep history of accreditation with graduate-level programs. The ACEN has representatives on multiple national task force groups looking at various aspects of graduate-level education. The ACEN also has representation on the Licensure, Accreditation, Certification, Education (LACE) Panel that meets monthly regarding graduate-level education at the APRN level. If you have any questions regarding the ACEN’s accreditation of graduate-level programs, please do not hesitate to contact the ACEN office and ask to speak to one of the Directors. If you currently have undergraduate programs accredited with the ACEN and would like to also have your graduate programs accredited with the ACEN, a Director can also guide you in that process.