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Applying to College as a Debater: Debate Scholarships (Part 2)

Author: Carly Watson

In the first post in this series, I wrote about how debate intersects with the application and consideration phase when going through the college process. In this post, I’ll be talking more about how debate can be potentially financially beneficial for students looking to debate in college. Unfortunately, too many financial opportunities in college debate are opaque and inaccessible so hopefully this can help provide some more information.

As always, starting with some disclaimers. Schools vary widely in how they award debate-specific scholarships and what debate-specific scholarships may be available – that’s part of what makes this challenging to navigate as an applicant. Some teams offer merit-based financial awards to debaters, some teams offer need-based financial assistance to debaters, and some teams offer a combination of both. For a general list of debate scholarships, the NSDA has put together a scholarship listing document that may be a useful reference.

Scholarship Timelines

I’ve already emphasized the benefits of reaching out early in the process to coaches but applying early is also crucial for students looking for financial support from debate (and usually the school honestly). Most financial awards are given on a rolling basis so being in contact with a school early can help them give you a more realistic view of what financial assistance they can offer. Debate teams often give debate-specific offers over time as people apply so, mathematically, that pool of money is usually largest at the start of a recruiting cycle. On the non-debate side, at MSU (and several other schools), November 1st is called the “early action deadline.” Early action is non-binding (it doesn’t require you to attend MSU) but it does ensure “automatic maximum scholarship consideration.” For out-of-state students in particular, this deadline can mean substantial scholarship consideration (e.g. a student with a GPA of 3.8 and ACT score of 32 is automatically considered for a $15,000 scholarship) or acceptance into more selective academic programs (like the Honors College). This section is sounding like a pitch for MSU Debate (and we’d love to have you!) but I’m mostly trying to contextualize these deadlines with some specific examples. Applying early can maximize your chances of receiving financial awards – both from debate and generally.

Be Willing to Ask

Before getting a little more into the weeds on debate scholarships, I’ll say this – you should absolutely feel comfortable asking a program what debate-specific scholarships are available. I fully realize that this again treads into potentially uncomfortable territory but the worst they can say is that they don’t have anything available. Some schools may not have any debate-specific awards and it’s better to know that upfront than have it sprung on you later.

You should only share with programs information that you’re comfortable with but I think there’s a benefit in being transparent and honest about your financial needs. If you can only realistically attend an out-of-state school if tuition matches in-state tuition or you could only attend if you have a full tuition scholarship, telling that to the coach or director you’re working with can help everyone stay on the same page. Some people think there’s a game within the game to withhold information about their financial needs in order to maximize their merit-based awards. Personally, I am of the belief that most program directors are doing their best to maximize their debate-specific financial offers so knowing what you’re looking for can help them identify potential awards for you.

Types of Debate-Specific Scholarships

In the interest of trying to create some typology, there are broadly three types of financial awards debate programs will usually talk to you about. First, debate programs have scholarships where they control who receives the awards directly and the team typically defines the parameters for scholarship receipt. These scholarships can either be endowed (meaning they’re from largely secure funding steams) or funded through camp revenue and/or on-going donations (meaning they’re potentially less secure/more variable). Second, debate programs may receive scholarship funds from other entities (e.g. the Office of Admissions) and have control over who receives the funds. Usually the terms of the scholarship are determined by the third party issuing the award in conjunction with the debate team. Third, programs may have connections with other entities or programs on campus that they can use to help you secure additional financial assistance. The third category varies wildly in its terms, application process, and tie to debate but can be a useful resource for students.

In addition to who administers the award, scholarships themselves differ in the specifics. Some scholarship offers are renewing and some scholarship offers are non-renewing. Renewing awards would be available for a set number of years (usually four) whereas non-renewing offers are only made for a single year or single semester. To add another layer of complexity, teams may choose abnormal payout structures for their awards over time (e.g. you are awarded $40,000 over four years but instead of being $10,000/year it’s $15,000 the first two years and $5,000 the second two years). Scholarships also commonly come with variable requirements about a student’s participation on the debate team or academic performance. The most important thing to remember is that you should seek clarity about the type of financial award and terms of the award. These decisions can have huge financial, practical, and emotional consequences so it’s important that everyone has clarity. If you think that your debate scholarship requires generally doing some debate but the program’s expectations are that you attend two tournaments a semester, maintain a 3.5 GPA, and participate in outreach events, it’s a mismatch that potentially spells disaster.

There is an incredible amount of variation across different debate programs and at different schools when it comes to the financial aspects of debate. Building relationships at the different programs you’re interested in can help you navigate the complicated process. In the next post in the series, I’m going to talk a little about comparing different debate programs as you work to decide on specific schools to consider or apply to.

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