Allan Louden, Chair Communication Department
Former Director of Debate, Wake Forest University
Over twenty years ago I wrote a short essay with suggestions for choosing a college debate program. I have continually been surprised since that the essay continues to draw readers. The simple essay seemed to have utility, drawing a larger audience than any serious academic essay I’ve penned. The essay of 1990 became dated, but touched on decisions that are real, confusing, and often with life time consequence. At the prompting of a colleague I have revised the essay, updating and extending. I hope it can be of use in your decision if debate should be part of your life after High School.
Deciding to continue debate, selecting the most appropriate program, and knowing which college or university to attend are among the most difficult decisions facing graduating high school students. Too often these important decisions are also the least informed. The following observations are offered to provide some guidelines for approaching these decisions.
Should I Debate in College?
After completing a rigorous high school academic and debate career it is natural to entertain hesitations about debating in college; wanting a breather and wondering how your friends spend their time.
College debate is not for everyone. College provides a cornucopia of opportunities and closing off those chances should be examined carefully. Too often, however, high school seniors prematurely decide to “wait to get involved” until they first master their class work. Delaying participation sounds prudent but this strategy is not always the best approach. The rewards in college more often go to those who do get involved. Staying “too busy” is often the formula for accomplishing more than your peers.
A common question I was asked by incoming college freshmen was “how much time will college debate take?” The glib answer, of course, is too much. The reality it is the wrong question; activities worth the time take time. Most college activities are more specialized and make greater demands on your time. The bottom line is that compared to the “ordinary low-intensity student,” those who pursue some area of excellence utilize their “time” in ways that are forever memorable. Debaters who “sacrifice” the time are rewarded with intense friendships forged through competition (local and national), ability to handle pressures comparable to the most challenging jobs, and academic skills heads and shoulders above their peers. Not a bad payoff for an activity that participants generally love anyway.
In addition to time commitments many incoming freshman express hesitations about their own abilities to succeed. Importantly, college debate is not just for the “stars” of the high school circuit. A prevalent myth which says “only the best need apply” is empirically denied every year. The ranks of college debate are filled with competitors whose high school careers were average and those who competed in programs with limited opportunities. On occasion, top college speakers have not even participated in debate until college. The great equalizers are determination, tenacity, and maturity. One should never decide out-of-hand that they cannot make it in college debate. If you are genuinely interested there are opportunities to match your enthusiasm.
If you are interested in debating in college or simply want to learn more about potential programs how can you go about learning which programs exist and what they are really like? The following guidelines may help sort out the available information and misinformation.
Not All Programs Are for Everyone
What college debate program might be best for you? There exists a myth among high school students that there are a half dozen or so programs to consider if one is serious about college debate. In reality there are scores of programs that provide quality opportunities to compete in college debate. Not every program is for everyone (regardless of what college recruiters may tell you). Programs have personalities. By this I mean they offer a variety of philosophies and opportunities. Depending on your goals there are traditional (NDT/CEDA) and parliamentary debate programs, private and public schools, regional and national programs. Each option has a number of benefits and should not be rejected out-of-hand simply for cursory reasons (e.g., prestige). Do not overlook programs that can provide you with the greatest opportunities to debate. Surprisingly, these are not always the “name schools.” The real questions are what kind of education, at what price tag, with what kind of environment can you expect?
It is usually worth finding time to visit the campus. Plan enough time so that you can get a genuine feel for the debaters and coaches. Ask to room with and active debater or even attend a squad meeting. It helps if you can call ahead to see if your visit is convenient for the host team (remember that they have busy travel schedules too).
Additionally programs have Web Pages and Facebook groups that outline the opportunities offered by their school and squad. Reading between the line, there is a wealth of information on programs activity level and competitive philosophy. URLs can be easily found via a direct Internet search engine.
Getting in Contact
The cardinal rule in learning about programs is to let them know you are interested! While it is undoubtedly personally gratifying to be actively recruited by a college debate program most debaters do not receive this personal attention. You should never conclude that a program is uninterested in you just because they do not initiate contact. Most college coaches are busy with their own programs and attend few high school tournaments. In many instances their “lack of interest” is nothing more than they do not know you exist. How, then, can you get the attention of college directors? What follows are some hints on making contact with college programs.
Relevant Questions to Ask the College Coach
Once you have made contact with college programs, it is still important to investigate these programs. The following questions help sort out the barrage of well-intentioned positive claims made by programs.
There is, of course, no substitute for proven academic accomplishments. The best schools engage in serious competition for the top students and are willing pay big bucks to attract them to their campus. Remember that when students have good scores and rank high in their class, there are scholarships available for those who investigate the opportunities and apply early. Most special category scholarships also have application deadlines which occur prior to normal admissions. It is not uncommon for deadlines for major scholarships to be in the fall semester. For the large specialized scholarships one cannot wait until after Christmas to start the process. Most college coaches are familiar with the special categories at their schools, so do not hesitate to ask.
Every director is understandably proud of his or her program. There is no doubt that the vast majority of individuals coaching in college today are motivated to help students find their best personal opportunities. The recruiter’s natural enthusiasm for attracting students to debate at their school, however, requires that you develop a critical ability to sort through the trappings that come your way. This section alerts you to some of the reservations to keep in mind when investigating a program.
Debating can be one of the most rewarding experiences you are likely to encounter in college. If you have found your high school competition to be rewarding on any number of levels (social, knowledge, skills, excitement, etc.), you can expect the college experience to exceed your expectations. Each year I have contact with dozens of alumni, many of whom are well established in successful careers. I am continually struck with the nearly universal sentiment that: “debate was the most rewarding experience of my college career.” Take control of your own future and intelligently investigate the opportunities that college debate offers.