ACEN History of Ensuring Educational Quality in Nursing

acen-torchFrom Florence Nightingale and Clara Barton to Louisa May Alcott and Walt Whitman, nursing has a rich history; a history that may not be known by many but is upheld through nursing education and nursing education accreditation. The ACEN is a proud member of the nursing community, with decades of experience in nursing education accreditation and an eye on the future.

In the late 1800s, the initial growth in higher education in the United States led to the need to ensure educational quality. This began the rise of institutional accreditation, also known as regional accreditation, and the founding of organizations such as the New England Association (1885), the Middle States Association (1887), the North Central Association (1895), and the Southern Association (1895). Soon after the development of institutional accreditation, it became clear that individual disciplines had the responsibility to ensure that each program’s graduates were well-prepared. The early 20th Century saw the birth of programmatic accreditation for business, medicine, and nursing. This led to the development of the American Society of Superintendents of Training Schools for Nurses (1895).

In 1912, the American Society of Superintendents of Training Schools for Nurses was renamed the National League for Nursing Education (NLNE). The NLNE would publish the first set of accreditation standards for nursing education in 1917. During this time, programmatic accreditation was monitored using a platform similar to the peer review process of today. A program seeking accreditation would apply to the accrediting agency, a self-evaluation process would occur followed by an external evaluation led by peer evaluators, and based on the standards set by the accreditor, the program would be granted or denied accreditation. If accreditation was granted, the program would undergo the process again in a set number of years. With the model for evaluation and the standards for accreditation established, the NLNE was poised to evolve into the international agency we know today. In 1952, the NLNE combined with the National Organization for Public Health Nursing and the Association for Collegiate School of Nursing to become the National League for Nursing (NLN).

As the decades progressed, the NLN through its accreditation division, served as the sole nursing program accreditor in the United States. However, 1997 brought about big changes. In order to comply with the U.S. Department of Education’s (USDE’s) regulations requiring accrediting activities to be separate and independent from trade organizations, the accreditation activities were transferred to a wholly owned subsidiary corporation of the NLN through the establishment of the National League for Nursing Accrediting Commission (NLNAC); thus, permanently removing the NLN from accrediting nursing programs and conveying all accrediting activities and responsibilities to the NLNAC. After taking this step to comply with USDE regulations, the NLNAC began expanding its accreditation services to assist nurse educators develop and maintain strong nursing programs. The NLNAC soon became the most well-trusted and well-known accrediting agency for nursing education. In 2009, the NLNAC relocated from its headquarters in New York, New York, to its current location in Atlanta, Georgia. Settling in Atlanta facilitated the continued emergence of the agency as a supportive and innovative partner in nursing education.

The move to Atlanta also spurred a name change for the NLNAC. In 2013, the NLNAC was renamed the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN). The ACEN has expanded its range beyond U.S. accreditation to welcome international neighbors, with programs in Scotland, Oman, and Saudi Arabia, to name a few. Today the ACEN, now recognized by the USDE as an independent, wholly owned subsidiary corporation of the NLN, operates from the Buckhead neighborhood of Atlanta, where it continues to expand support for nursing education.

Alongside more tangible changes in name and location, the ACEN has continued to fine-tune accreditation processes and improve the resources available to constituents. The Candidacy process has helped to prepare programs seeking accreditation for success in their initial site visit and deliver feedback to fledgling and established nursing programs alike in the early stages of the accreditation process. The benefits of this supportive partnership are evident, with 44 of 45 programs successfully achieving initial accreditation in 2016. The ACEN Accreditation Manual has also transformed; policies have been revised and rewritten to ensure clarity and transparency and address innovative practices in the current nursing education climate, such as distance education and credit transfer. In addition, the Workshop for the Nurse Administrator was recently introduced to serve as a guided orientation to the roles and responsibilities of nurse administrators and coordinators of candidate and accredited programs.

The ACEN remains focused on the future, with internal growth and development leading to ever-improving supportive service and resources. Beginning in Spring 2017, Advisory Reviews will offer programs the chance to receive direct feedback from the ACEN professional staff in preparation for an upcoming accreditation site visit, and the observer policy, which starts in Fall 2017, will allow a program representative to accompany a team onsite during an accreditation visit for an immersive learning experience. The ACEN is also spearheading an accreditation conference, set to begin in 2018, to foster development, growth, and networking within the community of nursing education accreditation scholars. Finally, the implementation of a new online Accreditation Management System in 2017 (see: Improving the ACEN Accreditation Process Through New Online Software) will increase efficiency both internally and across interactions with nurse educators and peer evaluators, as well as provide 24/7 access to accreditation processes.

As the leading authority in nursing education accreditation, the ACEN strives to be not just a leader in nursing education accreditation but a dedicated and supportive partner in nursing education, collaborating with nursing faculty and administrators, volunteers, and colleagues to continuously strengthen nursing education at the national and international level. The ACEN is proud to be the oldest nursing education accreditor, and will continue adding to its history for decades to come by ensuring educational quality through accreditation for nursing programs everywhere.