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Applying to College as a Debater: Comparing Debate Programs (Part 3)

Author: Carly Watson

In previous posts, I talked about debate in the application and consideration phase as well as debate-specific scholarships. In this post, I plan to talk about some criteria you can use to compare different debate teams. There are tons of important non-debate benchmarks to consider when comparing schools (one last pitch for thinking about the school first and the debate team second), but this post will focus on debate-specific issues. Lots of good work has been done other places suggesting metrics you can use to compare debate programs. Dr. Louden has a post about it here and GirlsDebate did a great article about it recently as well. My goal isn’t to replicate those awesome articles but to synthesize their work with some feedback from other folks and my experience.

Your personal experience and what you’re looking for from college debate is exactly that – personal. You should consider what you’re looking for from college debate and choose points of comparison across programs. There’s no right or wrong questions to ask debate programs you’re considering but the table below offers some ideas and potential questions you could ask.


College Support for Debate Team How institutionalized is the debate program at the school? Is the debate team funded by an endowment? Does the university fund the team year-to year? Does the team require donations and/or camp revenue to operate? A debate team’s longevity and opportunities for debaters can vary depending on the amount of support they receive from the college and how they’re funded.
Debate-Specific Financial Awards Do you have debate-specific awards for incoming students available? Can the debate team help secure financial assistance from other entities on campus? Whether or not a debate team has awards available or can help with the financial aspects of attending college are important to consider.
Employment Opportunities Can debaters be hired as student employees by the debate team? Can students on the team work at summer debate camps? Another way debate programs may support their students is by hiring them as student employees.
Financial Support for Competition Does the team pay for student travel to tournaments? Does the team offer students additional money when traveling? Does the team buy supplies for competition (e.g. flow paper, technological items, etc.)? Most teams pay for students’ travel to and attendance at tournaments but whether students receive additional support varies by program.
Type of Squad
Size of Team How many students are generally on the debate team? How many students are actively/regularly participating? There are upsides and downsides to the size of team that are a matter of personal preference (e.g. larger schools may have more resources but could mean fewer opportunities or smaller schools may mean less intra-team competition but fewer resources or choices for partners)
Team Centralization Is the team administered in a more centralized or decentralized way? Who is responsible for assignment lists, partnerships, scheduling, etc.? Some teams have a more centralized structure (e.g. coaches organize/plan administrative aspects) and some teams are more decentralized (e.g. students organize things like partnerships/research). Which scheme you would feel more comfortable with depends on the experience you’re looking for
Coaches Who coaches the team? Which coaches are local and which are remote? What are the expectations of the various coaches? Do the coaches also teach classes? It’s important that you find a program where you feel comfortable with the coaches – those are the people that you’ll be working with on a regular basis. It’s important to get a clear sense of who is affiliated with the team and what their responsibilities are.
Argumentative Preferences Does the team focus on a particular style of debate? Are there requirements on types of arguments that can be read? If you are someone with a strong preference for the type of argument(s) you debate, you should get a sense from programs about whether they’re a good fit for you
University Placement Is the debate team housed in a specific college department? Is the debate program a team, club, or unit on campus? Debate teams and programs can vary on how they are administered at different schools. How a team is structured can impact financial support and connections on campus.
Squad Experience
Commitment Level How many tournaments are students expected to attend? How much time per week is required by students? Different teams (or scholarships) may have different expectations and/or requirements for students’ commitment.
Diversity How diverse is the coaching staff? How diverse is the current team? How diverse are the alumni? Representation alone doesn’t determine what a squad will be like but it can be a crucial differentiating factor across programs.
Team Culture Are students on the team generally in the same friend group? Does the team have any cliques? Does the program actively support bonding activities? The “feel” of a debate team can be difficult to figure out but asking questions about team culture can help you understand more what the student experience may be like
Physical Location Where is the debate team located on campus? Is there a physical space for students to work on debate? Some debate teams have areas dedicated to the debate team, some debate teams have areas that are primarily just staff offices and some debate teams may not have any debate-specific physical location on campus.
Competitive Experience
Travel Opportunities Where did the team travel last year? How are teams selected for tournament attendance? What tournaments could I expect to attend over my time on the team? College teams typically attend fewer tournaments than high school debaters but there is variation in what the travel schedule may look like across programs.
Goal Matching Would the team be supportive of my academic/competitive goals? Obviously this criteria varies by the individual person but you should consider whether your ultimate academic/competitive goals are in line with the debate team.
Research Expectations What percentage of the files are produced by students as opposed to coaches? What is the expectation for students when it comes to researching arguments? Some schools have student-driven research production and some schools have more of their files produced by coaches.
Partnership Process How are partnerships on the team determined? What is the process of negotiating potential conflict within partnerships? Some schools have students select their own partners, some teams have the coaches set partnerships, and some schools combine student and coach input to determine partnerships
Intra-Squad Collaboration Do partnerships on the team share files with each other? Is there a distribution system for research/files? Some squads require collaboration across partnerships and some squads allow partnerships to do more independent work.


This concludes our series about applying for college as a debater (for now). If you have questions about applying to college as a debater or are interested in MSU Debate, you can always email me at

Thanks to many folks who helped contribute to these articles on social media and through backchannels including Gabrielle Tandet, Cade Cottrell, Darrel Wanzer-Serrano, Ben McGraw, Justin Stanley, Vik Keenan, Jasmine Stidham, Victoria Yonter, and Brian Shah-DeLong

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