The relationship between university student commitment profiles and behavior: exploring the nature of context effects.

Author:McNally, Jeffrey J.


Theoretical concepts from the organizational behavior literature, including commitment, are rarely used to help explain university student behavior. The benefits of doing so might include the development of a synthesis of knowledge about the behavior of students in an organizational setting. Such a synthesis is important because it will help extend organizational commitment literature to student samples and will help explain student behavior as a result of their commitment. As such, the purpose of this study was twofold: (a) to test theoretical propositions advanced by Meyer and Herscovitch concerning the interactive effects of affective, normative, and continuance commitment on students' focal and discretionary behaviors and (b) to provide an exploratory examination of the notion of a commitment profile "context effect" for normative commitment for students in a university setting. Study measures were gathered from a sample of 287 undergraduate business students. Results showed support for interactive effects of the three components of commitment for both focal and discretionary behavior. Results also showed support for commitment profile differences and for the existence of a normative commitment context effect.


organizational commitment, commitment profiles, commitment context effect, student retention, drop-out rates, discretionary behaviors, management education


Commitment has been extensively examined by researchers in a wide variety of contexts. The construct is considered important because it has been shown to be predictive of work-related attitudes and behaviors. However, the construct has only rarely been used to explain behavioral outcomes in educational contexts. It is likely that commitment has important implications for student behavior in colleges and universities. Based on the extant commitment literature in traditional workplace contexts, there may be reason to believe that high levels of commitment might be positively associated with students' engagement and negatively associated with students' intention to quit school. As such, the purpose of this study is to examine the construct of commitment and its outcomes in a university setting. Specifically, it provides a test of Meyer and Herscovitch's (2001) theoretical predictions about the combined effects of different components of undergraduate students' commitment to their university on their focal and discretionary behaviors. We contend that this study makes three important theoretical contributions to the organizational commitment literature in that it (a) investigates the interactive effects of different components of commitment on focal and discretionary behaviors which, with only a few exceptions (e.g., Gellatly, Meyer, & Luchak, 2006; Sinclair, Tucker, Wright, & Cullen, 2005; Wasti, 2005), has not been adequately done in the commitment literature; (b) examines the generalizability of the Meyer and Herscovitch (2001) model, particularly the outcomes of commitment, to a university student population; and (c) provides a starting point for the development of a synthesis of knowledge about behavior between the organizational behavior and management education literatures.

A fourth purpose of this study is to examine the notion of the existence of a commitment "context effect" for normative commitment (NC). As explained in depth in the following section of this article, it has been suggested that the meaning and implications of commitment might vary as a function of the three components of commitment, affective, normative, and continuance (Gellatly et al., 2006). Although there is some evidence that this may be the case, particularly in terms ofNC (Gellatly et al., 2006), this study represents the first attempt to formally test for a NC context effect.

Literature Review and Hypotheses

Organizational Commitment

Organizational commitment has been defined in a variety of ways in the organizational literature (Meyer & Allen, 1997). In general, most definitions of the construct make reference to the fact that commitment in organizations (a) is a stabilizing or obliging force and (b) gives direction to behavior, for example, by binding a person to a particular course of action (Meyer & Herscovitch, 2001). Early conceptualizations of organizational commitment were primarily unidimensional, with commitment being defined as either the evaluation of the costs associated with quitting (Becket, 1960) or an emotional attachment to the organization (Mowday, Steers, & Porter, 1979). However, support for the single dimension perspectives of commitment has been mixed at best (Wasti, 2005).

It has been noted that one of the most important reasons for distinguishing among the differing components of organizational commitment is that they might have different implications for behavior (Gellatly et al., 2006; Sinclair et al., 2005). As a result, organizational commitment has more recently been defined as a multidimensional construct (Allen & Meyer, 1990; Meyer & Allen, 1997). According to Meyer and Allen (1997), employee commitment can reflect varying combinations of desire (affective commitment; AC), obligation (NC), and perceived cost (continuance commitment; CC).

Relationship Between Commitment and Work-Related Attitudes and Behaviors

Although all three bases of commitment tend to bind individuals to their organizations, their relations with other types of work behavior might be quite different. For example, Meyer and Allen (1997) argued that AC and NC would relate positively to job performance and organizational citizenship behaviors (OCBs), whereas CC would be unrelated, or even negatively related, to these behaviors. That is, individuals who want to maintain membership in their organization will also want to do what it takes to make the organization successful. This will also be true for employees who feel a sense of obligation to remain, although the willingness to do more than is required might not be quite as strong as for AC. Individuals who remain primarily to avoid costs associated with leaving (e.g., loss of benefits) are not expected to do more than is required of them and might even reduce effort as a result of feeling trapped.

A recent meta-analysis by Meyer, Stanley, Herscovitch, and Topolnytsky (2002) provided support for Meyer and Allen's (1997) propositions. Results showed that all three forms of organizational commitment correlated negatively with withdrawal cognitions, turnover intentions, and turnover but that they correlated somewhat differently with other discretionary behaviors. AC had the strongest positive correlation with these desirable work behaviors, followed by NC. CC was unrelated or negatively related to these behaviors.

Meyer and Allen (1997) also suggested that individuals can experience more than one basis of commitment at the same time. For example, it is possible to feel both a desire and an obligation to remain with one's organization (Gellatly et al., 2006). Therefore, Meyer and Allen (1997) suggested that it is best to consider each individual as having a commitment profile reflecting the relative strength of the AC, NC, and CC components. For instance, a "pure" AC profile described an individual who had high levels of AC but low levels of both NC and CC. The implication of commitment profiles is that researchers should examine the combined impact of the three components of commitment on behavior (Gellatly et al., 2006). However, only a handful of studies have examined the relationship between commitment profiles and behavior, none of which have been conducted in educational settings. Before moving on to our hypotheses about the potential relationships between commitment profiles and student behaviors, we believe it is worthwhile to discuss the importance of conducting commitment research in educational settings.

Studying Commitment in a University Setting: A Theoretical Contribution?

Although much of the research on commitment to date has focused on "traditional" employee-employer relationships in organizational contexts, there is a mounting body of evidence that Meyer and Allen's (1997) propositions may hold in a variety contexts outside of the workplace setting. For example, in a series of studies designed to study commitment in marriages, Adams and Jones (1997) found evidence of three primary dimensions of marital commitment: (a) an attraction component based on devotion and love, (b) a moral-normative component based on a sense of obligation to continue a marriage, and (c) a constraining component based on the fear of social, emotional, and financial costs associated with terminating a marriage. Though these studies were not designed to specifically test Meyer and Allen's propositions, we maintain that these dimensions map well onto the conceptualizations of AC, NC, and CC, respectively. Furthermore, in a study that was specifically designed to test Meyer and Allen's propositions in a marketing context, Bansal, Irving, and Taylor (2004) found that customer commitment affected intentions to switch service providers. All three forms of commitment were negatively related to switching intentions. These studies suggest that there is strong evidence to suggest the three-component model of commitment extends beyond traditional employer-employee relationships.

Based on these findings, we are suggesting that extending the study of commitment to a university student population constitutes three important theoretical contributions. First, assuming Meyer and Herscovitch's (2001) predictions hold in this population, the further delineation of boundary conditions would be specified. That is, like the Adams and Jones (1997) and Bansal et al. (2004) studies, the model would be shown to be generalizable to a population other than employees in workplace settings. The cornerstone of generalizability is replication; without it, theory cannot be shown to be generalizable (Kuhn, 1970). If it is...

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