High School Debate: Pathways to Scholarships, Capitol Hill, and Success

Photo by  Ashton Bingham  on  Unsplash

Policy debate has never been more politically vital to future critical thinking than it is now. With the flood of politicians such as Ted Cruz and Mike Pence making headlines for their legislative decisions in the Capital, it flies under the radar that these political figures also participated in high school or intercollegiate debate.

A unique and thriving style of debate, policy is an amalgamation of political proposals that place debaters into the shoes of policymakers on Capitol Hill and open-ended criticisms of the structural issues belying society. If inexperienced adults ever stepped into a policy debate round, they would hear high-academia words such as ‘epistemology’ or ‘semiotics’ fly around in seemingly-banal discourse. Concomitantly, high school debaters will propose detailed plans concerning topics like abstinence-only sex education or corporal punishment in schools.

While the stereotypical cast of a debater as a high-school nerd is prevalent among some, debate organizations are actually growing as one of the largest financial-backers for low income students entering college, a thriving community of thousands, and one of the growing sports high schools have been funding in recent years. Many high school debate teams, usually comprised of several partnerships and coaches, travel across the country every weekend to participate in competitions at big-name locations such as UC Berkeley, Emory, Wake Forest, Georgetown, and Harvard.

Similarly, these universities run months upon months of summer programs where budding young debaters attend debate camps that run from one to seven weeks long.  These programs often cost thousands of dollars for board and intensive classes and seminars that run from early morning to midnight. Upon hearing about the dedication and intensity required to become a competitive high school debater, many question the growth value and potential for debate to link individuals to greater life lessons. As a matter of fact, policy debate is the basis of multiple scholarships at universities. For example, the Presidential Scholarship for Distinguished Achievement at Wake Forest University can provide academic scholarships to incoming debaters. It is a pipeline that many high school debaters have taken to pursue their academic dreams.

Particularly, urban debate leagues have risen rapidly as organizations that have given opportunities to students who would otherwise not have a voice. About thirty of these organizations are springing up in America including Baltimore, New York City, and Southern California. These leagues are also evidence of the long-lasting ties high school debate has; many former debaters who now work as lawyers, judges, and policy analysts sit on the Board of Directors.

However, the money-based stipulations to attend tournaments and prep camps still crowds out multiple debaters who live below the poverty line, reifying the gap between the competitive success of wealthy private schools and inner-city teams. Tournaments typically cost hundreds of dollars. Tack on coaching fees, judging dues, and camp fees. However, many organizations such as the Women’s Debate Institute have dedicated themselves to giving more opportunities to low-income and socio-economically disadvantaged individuals.

High school debate has transformative effects for many young individuals and has helped them gain agency and awareness of community issues. For example, the debate community came together for the #MeToo campaign to promote female solidarity as well as calling out complicity and microaggressions in the debate space. Policy debate has engendered the Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle organization in Baltimore to rise against oppression and violence within the city.

So while policy debate has been associated with the stifling and close-minded politicians of today, it should not go overlooked that it is also empowering the innovative, open, and beautiful tomorrow.