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CEUs vs. contact hours: what's the difference and why does it matter?

Have you ever finished a continuing education event and heard someone say, "So how do I get my CEUs?" And then someone else might say, "They aren't CEUs; they are contact hours." This might confuse you and leave you wondering what's being discussed. Hopefully this will help clarify some of those questions and concerns.

"Accreditation is the voluntary process by which a nongovernmental agency or organization appraises and grants accredited status to institutions and/or programs that meet predetermined structure, process, and outcome criteria" (American Nurses Credentialing Center [ANCC], 2012, para 4). The purposes of accreditation include establishing and maintaining criteria based on evidence. Organizations meeting criteria and providing evidence of outcomes are recognized and supported in their accredited status. In essence, the goal of accreditation is to assure that all approved programs provide high quality and evidence-based education.

CEU: Continuing Education Unit

In 1964, the International Association for Continuing Education and Training (IACET) began a system of awarding 0.1 Continuing Education Units (CEUs) for content offered in continuing education because of a perceived lack of standards in awarding credit for attending continuing education programs. There was concern that a disconnect existed between education being provided and recognition of knowledge gleaned; this was another reason for standardizing CEUs. Standardizing CEUs allowed learners to accumulate and transfer their educational records needed to maintain licenses, certifications, or memberships (IACET, 2011). The National League for Nursing (NLN) is approved by the IACET to be a provider of CEU programs and follows their guidelines and criteria. The NLN provides CEUs focused solely on nursing education and only accepts programs for accreditation approval that are designed to enhance the knowledge and skills of nursing educators. Schools of nursing, NLN constituents, and other organizations with which NLN has a strategic alliance often apply to the NLN for accreditation approval (NLN, 2007).

The IACET is the most respected accrediting agency that awards CEUs. However, the term Continuing Education Unit (CEU) is often misused. Calculation for CEUs is done as follows: 1.0 contact hour = 0.1 CEU = 60 minutes (CEUs are expressed in tenths). To figure CEU allocation, sum all of the educational program minutes attended, divide by 60, and divide again by 10, with the fraction of the last few minutes rounded off to the nearest tenth (IACET, 2011). To properly earn I CEU, 10 clock hours of a class or workshop must be attended.

Here is an example: You register for a four-day conference and attend 23 hours of education in the general and breakout sessions. Your certificate should indicate that you received 2.3 CEUs. CEUs are used primarily today by industrial and technical associations.

CNE: Continuing Nursing Education

The American Nurses Association (ANA) determined that the CEU designation created confusion and problems for nurses needing to maintain continuing education in order to become certified or to maintain their license. Therefore, in 1974, a system for accrediting Continuing Nursing Education (CNE) was established by the ANA. In 1991, the ANA established the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) as a separate organization, moving all the credentialing activities to that center. The American Nurses Credentialing Center has become the world's largest nurse credentialing organization, with strict standards developed to maintain quality of continuing education for nurses. The ANA is also the most widely used accrediting agency providing contact hours for nurses. ANCC is the only nurse credentialing organization that applied for and underwent an external analysis, successfully achieving "ISO-9001-2008 certification in the design, development, and delivery of global credentialing services and support services for nurses and healthcare organizations" (ANCC, 2012, para 6). The term contact hours is the correct term for those activities that give 1.0 credit for each 60 minutes of time in the educational activity. Contact hours may be awarded in increments of tenths of an hour (for example 2.1 contact hours). Rounding is done down to the nearest tenth of an hour (ANCC, 2012). So the same 23 hours of educational sessions described in the previous example would provide 23 contact hours.


CEUs and contact hours are two different methods used to recognize and award professionals for enhancing and maintaining knowledge needed to remain current and credible for a specific discipline or skill. Employers, organizations, and certifying bodies often require a minimum number of CEUs or contact hours over a specified period of time in order to maintain certification or licensing in a particular field. Most often for nurses, contact hours are awarded through the ANA and/or the ANCC.

Now when you register for the AMSN Annual Convention in Orlando this September, you'll be able to figure out how many contact hours you can expect to earn by attending. This will enhance your nursing knowledge and provide the necessary requirements needed to renew your license and/or certification.


American Nurses Credentialing Center's (ANCC) Commission on Accreditation. (2012). The value of accreditation for continuing nursing education: Quality education contributing to quality outcomes. Retrieved from

International Association for Continuing Education and Training (IACET). (2011). Ownership of a higher standard. Retrieved from

National League for Nursing (NLN). (2007). Continuing education program approval. Retrieved from

Sally S. Russell, MN, BSN, RN, CMSRN, is a Nursing Program Administrator, Eagle Gate College, Salt Lake City, UT. She is a Past President of AMSN.
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Title Annotation:Continuing Education Units
Author:Russell, Sally S.
Publication:MedSurg Nursing
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2014
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