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Debate More:  Academic Success and University Admissions

Debate More: Academic Success and University Admissions

*The results of this study show that twenty seven percent (27%) of graduating seniors who reached the octofinals or octofinals equivalent rounds (top 16 two-person teams, top 32 students) at NSDA, TOC, and NCFL nationals in Public Forum (PF) debate in 2017 are attending ivy league colleges and universities. Twenty-nine percent (29%) of the same students are attending schools ranked in the top 10 by US News & World Report (“USNWR”). Fifty two percent (52%) are attending schools in the top 20.  Sixty-two percent (62%) are attending schools in the top 30.  Seventy-nine percent (79%) are attending schools in the top 75.

*Debate is hard. Success at the highest levels of Public Forum (PF) debate, requires intelligence, ambition, hard work, and intellectual curiosity. Success in debate is a meaningful accomplishment that demonstrates you can compete against the most academically talented students in the country.

*Given the strength of the academic profiles of debaters, participation in debate will connect students to a talented peer group that will further motivate them to succeed.

*Despite the time commitment that success at this level requires, including missing school for a number of tournaments, based on university admissions results, debate does not appear to undermine one’s grades or SAT scores, two of the most important criteria for admissions. Reasonable data suggests a correlation between participation in academic debate and admissions to top universities in the United States.  There are strong reasons to believe that debate participation is exceptionally positive.


Those of us who have been involved in academic debate for a significant period of time see first hand the value of academic debate and the impact it has on students.  Many debaters claim the impact is life saving; some even feel it made a significant contribution to their acceptance at their dream college or university; and many more say that it has a life-long impact on their professional success.

In the US, however, it quickly becomes obvious to many that debate involves a significant investment of time, sometimes money (depending on who is paying the costs), and decisions to reduce one’s time on other valuable academic pursuits, and test prep.  Some parents fear that their children will become consumed by debate and miss too much school traveling to tournaments.  Data collected from this study, however, belies this conclusion.

In the modern world,  data collection is easy and something we should be using to make our analyses.  The first report examines the college admissions prospects of the top Public Forum debaters in the US, draws some tentative conclusion about the academic benefits of debate, and offers suggestions for further study.


This study uses a simple method: Examination of the list of students who made it to the octofinals of the three major national high school debate tournaments in Public PF debate.

National Speech & Debate Association Nationals (NSDA): NSDA Nationals is the officially recognized, championship tournament of the National Speech & Debate Association.  It selects students through a geographically based district qualifiers. Precise numbers of students who are qualified to attend vary yearly, but in recent years there have been approximately 270 – 300 two-person PF teams that have been qualified to attend. This year (2017), 270 PF teams (540)students were qualified and competed at the NSDA Nationals.

Catholic Forensic League Nationals (NCFL): NCFL Nationals is another championship tournament that selects teams based on a similar district selection process like NSDA. Although there is less geographic diversity (NCFL is stronger on the East Coast of the US) and it is considered a very strong national tournament in Public Forum. Approximately two hundred teams compete in this tournament each year.  In  2017, there were 200 Public Forum teams in this tournament.

Tournament of Champions (TOC): The TOC is a smaller tournament (approximately 100 teams each year), but it uses a different selection process. It selects teams who have reached the late elimination rounds of major national tournaments in the United States, billing itself as the tournament for students who have obtained championship status at other tournaments. The tournament offers two divisions: Gold and Silver. The Silver division has less stringent qualification standards and fewer graduating seniors, so only Gold division competitors were considered in this study.

Both TOC and NCFL use a conventional elimination process where students advance after a set of preliminary rounds of 6 debates.  Both tournaments start to recognize winners for at least a single octofinal pool of 32 students (the top 16 teams), if not a double-octofinal pool of 64 students (the top 32 teams).

The NSDA uses a different elimination round process – a double elimination – and does not necessarily have a full octofinals bracket, but they do publicly release the top 14 teams (28 students).

Therefore, 32 students from TOC, 32 students from NCFL, and 28 students from NSDA, a total of 92 top PF debate students were analyzed.


After finding out where they attended school from their coaches and people on the debate circuit, the number was reduced a bit because a) 33 students returned to high school for the 2017-18 academic year; and b) 5 students appeared in the top 16 of more than one tournament. Therefore, 33 records were not relevant, and 5 were only relevant once, leaving a total of 54 students’ records as described below:

15/54 (27.77 %) are attending ivy league universities;

16/54 (29.96 %) are attending universities ranked in the top 10;

25/54 (46.62 %) are attending universities ranked in the top 20;

36/54 (66.66 %) are attending universities ranked in the top 30; and

38/54 (70 %) are attending universities ranked in the top 75.

These students are attending 36 different universities (full dataset below), but there are a few common concentrations as indicated below:

Harvard University – 2 students

Emory University – 2 students

University of Chicago – 2 students

University of Michigan – 2 students

U.C. Berkeley – 2 students

Yale University – 3 students

Duke University – 5 students

University of Pennsylvania – 6 students

A few considerations

The data does not necessarily represent the best university a student was accepted to.  In the US, students choose universities based on more than USNWR rankings.  Students will select a strong school that is a fit for them.  The amount of scholarship money awarded will impact a student’s choice.  Geography also matters, and a few students are attending reputable universities close to home. Future studies might consider acceptance data as opposed to matriculation data.

The data is limited.  Fifty four students is not a large sample size, but the data tends to be similar from year to year and more data will be collected in the future.

The data set does not include the prelim debates.  The data does not cover the prelim debates — the first six debates that everyone participates in in the national tournaments. I limited the data set to the elims for practical purposes, but I know many students who debated in those preliminary debates were also admitted to top US universities.

The data is only reflective of one debate event — Public Forum. Data from other debate events will be examined in the near future.  Based on anecdotal research, it will produce similar results.

Five conclusions that can be drawn

Debate is super hard. If a student wants to win a major national championship tournament, he/she needs to be as smart, hard-working, and intellectually curious as any student who can be admitted to the top universities in the United States.  This also applies to major invitational tournaments in the US, as many of the students who are participating in the octofinals of invitational championships will end up participating in the octofinals of other national tournaments.

Debaters are an excellent peer group. Debate provides opportunities to socialize and intellectualize with other highly intelligent, ambitious, and intellectually curious peers.    

Debate does not undermine academics, at least on the aggregate.  Debaters will miss some school, perhaps turn in a homework assignment or two late, and sometimes neglect course work in favor of debate, but this data suggests that it hardly has any negative impact on their overall academic profile. Subsequent research will examine how much time students who succeed at national tournaments are spending on debate. The initial thought is that they are missing five to twelve days of school per year for debate and they are spending 10-15 hours per week, on average, preparing for tournaments. Moreover, many students attest to the fact that the skills they have gained through debate have made school much easier for them, enabling them to complete higher quality assignments in significantly shorter periods of time. Other research has demonstrated that debate participation exposes students to a wider vocabulary, enhances critical thinking, facilitates students learning to work with others, teaches research skills, and exposes students to a substantially greater range of policy and philosophical issues than they would confront in school.  In the words of one former participant, debate participation enabled him to “crush school.” Two former students who took a full schedule of AP courses noted that they learned more in debate than all of their courses combined

Debate contributes to a strong college admissions profile.  All debaters know that correlation does not prove causation, but a strong correlation can suggest the possibility of causation. Anecdotal comments by admissions officers (AO) at leading universities (Harvard, Yale, University of Pennsylvania, and many more) suggest that AOs view debate as a very valuable co-curricular activity, and debate is a frequent topic of extended conversations at university admissions interviews.

Additionally, as noted, success in debate requires reading and understanding material significantly above grade level, exposes students to greater vocabulary, and contributes to the development of critical thinking skills that are tested on the SAT/ACT, which is a prerequisite to enter any prestigious university in the U.S.  Therefore, it is not farfetched to believe that there are strong correlations between debate and admissions.

What the data does not demonstrate

That data does not demonstrate that success in debate is required for strong university admissions.  Competitive debaters are obviously admitted to very strong universities, but so are other debaters who do not make these late elimination rounds. In the future, it is important to examine data from all debaters at these tournaments.

The data does not demonstrate that participation in debate is required for university admissions. Many students who are not debaters are admitted to the nation’s best universities. They have chosen to enhance their academic profile and their academic skills in other ways. This is fine, as debate is not for everyone, and participation in debate is not the only way to succeed in college admissions or one’s career.  It is, however, a likely path one can take to support his/her admissions to top universities and his/her career goals and connect him/er to an outstanding peer group.

One note

It was surprising that only five students overlapped in the data, meaning that only five students were part of the top 16 teams in more than one national tournament. While these tournaments often feel that they compete against each other, they are obviously providing unique opportunities for different students.

Ideas for further research

Time invested in debate. How much time did the students who were admitted to at least the top 30 universities spend on debate? Initial thoughts are shared above, but it would be useful to support this with data. How did students did not have success in debate fare?   By observation, it is known that many students who did not reach the elimination rounds were admitted to outstanding schools.  Further data will be provided in future research.

Broader pool.  Ideally, it would be good to examine all student data from the national championship tournaments and even other invitational tournaments. The broader database we have, the better.

Comparisons.  How do acceptance rates within debate compare to general acceptance rates? How do those acceptance rates compare with other activites.

Forthcoming research

In the very near future  additional research will be published.

Participation in debate in China and US university admissions.  This research, conducted by NSDA China staff, will identify the universities in the US that debaters in the China NSDA program are being admitted to. This research goes beyond the elimination rounds and presents a more comprehensive picture. Last year two students were admitted to the University of Chicago: one was admitted to Stanford, one to Yale, one to Harvard. This year’s Original Oratory champion has been admitted to Yale.

The value of debate as an academic program.  Some parents see debate as an “extra” curricular activity – something students do for fun when they are done with their school work.  Many high schools and colleges, however, provide academic credit simply for being on the debate team.  Arguably, we need to treat debate as a serious academic enterprise, not merely as a club or “extra” curricular activity.


The  most important conclusion that can be drawn from this data is this: Let students debate, and let them spend a lot of time on it! Students who are heavily invested in debate are challenged by incredibly bright and ambitious peers who will push them to be their very best . This student development arguably contributes to their admissions to some of the nation’s best universities, thus they do not seem to be at all hurt academically by their investment of time in this mental sport. There is also reason to believe that debate contributes substantially to the development of their own academic skills broader university admissions profiles. Given how difficult debate is and the fact that it attracts the best minds, it will work to form an outstanding peer group for young minds who are are seeking the very strongest university admissions.