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Operational Definition: What is Institutional Commitment?

Institutional Commitment refers to a student’s attitude toward the college or university as a whole, as opposed to the individuals within that institution. 


Institutional Commitment emerges from concepts popularized through Vincent Tinto’s research into student retention. According to Tinto (1975),  students who do not feel integrated into the social environment of an institution are less likely to feel a commitment to that institution. As a result, they were more likely to disengage from their academic work and withdraw from college altogether. 


Later work by Nora and Cabrera (1993) explored the potential dimensionality of institutional commitment, finding two factors. They found a general factor, including students’ perceptions of institutional quality, educational value, and fit, and an affinity factor, which included students perceived similarity of values with the institution. It is the general factor that most closely relates to the ISSAQ conceptualization of Institutional Commitment.


Empirical Relationship to Success (Does it Predict Student Success?)

Large-scale studies have shown interesting effects of Institutional Commitment, depending on the outcome of interest. Richardson, Abraham, & Bond (2012) found essentially no effect of institutional commitment on academic success, while Robbins et al. (2004) found a small but statistically correlation between institutional commitment measures and first-year GPA.

However, when examining correlations with first-year retention, Robbins et al. found a much larger effect. Markle et al. (2013), however, found essentially no correlation between institutional commitment and first-semester retention.

Practical Relationship to Success

Understanding the relationship between Institutional Commitment and student success requires an understanding of several factors. First, even in Tinto’s initial work, institutional commitment was a mediating factor. According to his model, students began by feeling socially disconnected from the institution, which subsequently impacted their commitment to the institution, followed by commitment to their studies as a whole. Thus, while a great deal of attention was paid to institutional commitment in later research, it was only one of several factors in Tinto’s model of attrition.


It is also important to understand how Institutional Commitment functions in modern higher education. For one, students attend college for very different reasons now, as opposed to the 1970s, when Tinto was formulating his theories of retention. The Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA has conducted a national survey of college freshmen annually since 1966. Among students surveyed in 1975 - when Tinto wrote his seminal work - only 59.7% listed “being very well off financially” as an important reason for attending college. Only 50.1% rated “being successful in business” as an important reason (Astin, King, & Richardson, 1976). Conversely, in 2018, 85.1% of students rated “being able to get a better job” as an important reason for college attendance, and 73.3% endorsed“being able to make more money” (Stolzenberg et al., 2019).


Due to changes in the survey, there aren’t directly comparable data. But these results support - and few would disagree - that employability and financial considerations are an increasing consideration among modern college students, if not the primary or even sole factor. At the same time, social factors, which were heavily addressed in previous surveys and but wholly excluded from the attendance question in 2018, seem to be less important in students’ minds. Thus, whereas in 1975, commitment to an institution may have played a central role in students’ attrition, financial and occupational considerations likely play a larger role in modern student attrition.


Another key factor to consider is the increased inclusion of community college students in conversations about student success. According to the Community College Research Center, more than a third of all students in higher education are enrolled at a community college, and the last decade has seen an increased focused on improving their success (e.g., Baily, Smith Jaggers, & Jenkins, 2015). 


According to CCRC, roughly 80% of students who begin at a community college intend to transfer to a four-year institution. In these cases, students may be more committed to their target institution than their current community college. Subsequently, institutional commitment may be difficult to pinpoint and certainly could have a differential relationship with success than Tinto initially theorized.

Thus, whereas many - particularly those working in large, flagship four-year institutions - may consider Institutional Commitment a central component, there are many student and institutional cases where it could either have less importance or different mechanisms to student success. Nevertheless, understanding students’ attitudes toward their institution can be critical, particularly as it relates to other factors such as Goal Commitment or Help Seeking.


How do I help students improve in Institutional Commitment?

Institutional Commitment is a Framing Factor.

This means that Institutional Commitment informs the ways in which we work with students, but is less impacted by direct interventions.

When most practitioners encounter students with low Institutional Commitment, it is likely later in a student's career. In these cases, some experience - interactions with faculty, availability of a major, or social disconnection - has soured a student's perception of the institution, and they are considering a departure, either through transfer or attrition. But how do we address low Institutional Commitment in relatively new students? 

In these cases, Coaches should pursue two goals:

  1. Understand the source of the student's attitude, and determine if it is something that can be addressed. For example, if a student has enrolled with the intent of transferring, they may be committed to their studies, but not adherent to the institution as an agent of their success. 

  2. Work to help the student see the institution as a supportive agent of their success. Even in cases where a student seeks to transfer, they should understand the important role their institution plays in that goal. Particularly, that the people within that institution are there to help them achieve their goal (see Sense of Belonging).

Ultimately, as mentioned above, low Institutional commitment in and of itself may not be a notable predictor of attrition. However, its root causes should be understood as much as possible, and its interaction with other factors should be considered, namely as it relates to Sense of Belonging and Help Seeking.

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Astin, A.W., King, M.R., & Richardson, G.T. (1976). The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 1975. Los Angeles: Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA.

Bailey, T., Smith-Jaggars, M., & Jenkins, D. (2015). Redesigning America's community colleges: A clearer path to student success. Harvard University Press.


Davidson, W. B., Beck, H. P., & Grisaffe, D. B. (2015). Increasing the institutional commitment of college students: Enhanced measurement and test of a nomological model. Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice, 17(2), 162-185.


Markle, R., Olivera-Aguilar, M., Jackson, T., Noeth, R., & Robbins, S. (2013). Examining evidence of reliability, validity, and fairness for the SuccessNavigator assessment. ETS Research Report (No. RR-13-12). Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service.

Nora, A., & Cabrera, A. F. (1993). The construct validity of institutional commitment: A confirmatory factor analysis. Research in Higher Education, 34(2), 243-262.

Porchea, S. F., Allen, J., Robbins, S., & Phelps, R. P. (2010). Predictors of long-term enrollment and degree outcomes for community college students: Integrating academic, psychosocial, socio-demographic, and situational factors. The Journal of higher education, 81(6), 680-708.

Richardson, M., Abraham, C., & Bond, R. (2012). Psychological correlates of university students’ academic performance: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 138(2), 353-387.

Robbins, S. B., Lauver, K., Le, H., Davis, D., Langley, R., & Carlstrom, A. (2004). Do psychosocial and study skill factors predict college outcomes? A meta-analysis. Psychological bulletin, 130(2), 261.

Stolzenberg, E. B., Eagan, M. K., Romo, E., Tamargo, E. J., Aragon, M. C., Luedke, M., & Kang, N. (2019). The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2018. Los Angeles: Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA. 

Tinto, V. (1975). Dropout from higher education: A theoretical synthesis of recent research. Review of educational research, 45(1), 89-125.