So You Want To Qualify For The NDT? An Analysis of the High School Experience of the 2010 NDT Field

This year’s National Debate Tournament will be hosted later this month by the University of California-Berkeley. Seventy-eight teams from forty-four colleges and universities have qualified to be part of the field either through district qualifying tournaments or through the first- and second-round bid process. Considered by most to be the pinnacle of interscholastic policy debate, the NDT brings together the most successful debaters in the country for an extended weekend of intense competition in order to crown the national championship team.

For high school debaters with aspirations of competing in college, qualifying for the NDT is a frequent goal. But is it realistic? The popular perception is that debaters who qualify for the NDT are largely products of strong high school debate programs and expensive summer institutes that are afforded the opportunity to compete regularly at national circuit tournaments. But is that really the case?

In order to investigate whether this common wisdom is correct—and to find out more about the demographic makeup of the NDT field—the 156 debaters that have qualified for this year’s NDT were categorized by the high school from which they graduated, the state in which they attended high school, and the year that they graduated high school. This data was obtained for all but seven students. Debaters were also separated into four categories to reflect their competitive experience in high school:

  1. Exceptional national circuit high school policy debaters—these students reached the elimination rounds of the Tournament of Champions and/or were consistently in the elimination rounds of major national invitationals.

  2. High school policy debaters with national circuit experience—these students competed regularly at national circuit tournaments but did not typically reach the late elimination rounds.

  3. High school policy debaters who competed only on local and regional circuits—these students may have attended a few national circuit tournaments but the vast majority of their competitive experiences were at the local or regional level.

  4. No high school policy debate experience—these students may have competed in Public Forum or Lincoln-Douglas debate (including on the national circuit) in high school, but they did not compete in policy debate.

Assignments to these categories were subjective but hopefully provide an accurate picture of the overall composition of the NDT field in terms of the debaters’ high school backgrounds.

Debaters from 31 states have qualified for this year’s NDT. Kansas—a state that places limits on the distance and frequency of travel to tournaments outside of its borders—leads the list with 19 alums. Traditional high school debate hotbeds Texas (18), Georgia (16), California (14), and Illinois (10) round out the top five.

  1. 19—Kansas
  2. 18—Texas
  3. 16—Georgia
  4. 14—California
  5. 10—Illinois
  6. 6—Florida, Missouri
  7. 5—Minnesota
  8. 4—Idaho, Maryland, Michigan, Virginia, Washington
  9. 3—Colorado, District of Columbia, Iowa, Massachusetts, Ohio, Oklahoma
  10. 2—Louisiana, New Hampshire, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Utah, Wisconsin
  11. 1—Arkansas, Mississippi, New York, South Carolina, Tennessee, Wyoming

Only seven high schools can claim three or more alums at this year’s NDT; another 20 have two alums apiece. Georgia’s Chattahoochee High School is the runaway leader with six students (from five graduating classes and competing for five different universities) attending the NDT.

  1. 6—Chattahoochee (GA)
  2. 4—Damien (CA), Glenbrook South (IL)
  3. 3—Georgetown Day School (DC), Glenbrook North (IL), Shawnee Mission East (KS), Westwood (TX)
  4. 2—Blacksburg (VA), Caddo Magnet (LA), Cathedral Prep (PA), Cedar Rapids Washington (IA), Celebration (FL), Centennial (ID), Digital Harbor (MD), Lexington (MA), Milton Academy (GA), Okemos (MI), Pace Academy (GA), Pueblo South (CO), Round Rock (TX), Shawnee Mission West (KS), Kinkaid (TX), Greenhill (TX), Westminster (GA), Woodlands (TX), Wayzata (MN), Wichita East (KS)

Students from nine high school graduating classes have qualified for this year’s NDT. The class of 2006 (mostly traditional fourth-year seniors) is represented by the highest number of students with the class of 2005 coming in second.

Of the 156 students that have qualified for the NDT, only 34 had extensive national circuit success while in high school and only 39 more had significant national circuit experience. In fact, the number of debaters whose high school experience was focused mostly on local and regional competition (75) is slightly more than the number who traveled extensively on the national circuit (73). The remaining eight students that have qualified for this year’s NDT had no high school policy debate experience.

What does this demographic analysis mean for current high school debaters hoping to one day qualify for the National Debate Tournament? National circuit success is certainly helpful, but it is not determinate: many debaters at this year’s NDT graduated from high school programs that did not provide them with extensive national circuit experience. While debaters from certain regions and with certain experiences undoubtedly have an easier path, the significant number of students that have reached the upper echelon of intercollegiate policy debate after competing at local and regional levels during high school provides ample precedent for those in similar positions who wish to make it to the top.

28 thoughts on “So You Want To Qualify For The NDT? An Analysis of the High School Experience of the 2010 NDT Field

  1. Trevor Aufderheide

    Great post, Bill.

    I was wondering if the above trends change at all when applied to specific demographics. I know you did some of this in your earlier post about the First Round Bid Qualifiers, but are there any statistics on how national circuit experience helps when you look at the first round qualifiers, second round qualifiers, different NDT districts, etc.? I'd be interested to see how different echelons of NDT qualifiers or different areas trend in the context of the four areas you isolated.

  2. JZ

    I agree with Trevor. This post is really insightful. I'm also wondering… how does the statistics change when you look at first round qualifiers or even limit it to a more exclusive ranking?

  3. Bill Batterman Post author

    How I Did This: I created a spreadsheet with each of the debaters currently entered for the NDT (from Debate Results). I filled in their high schools, states, and high school graduation years based on a variety of sources—,, college team websites, and Google searches. There were seven debaters for which I was unable to locate this information. For the high school experience column, I did this subjectively by consulting with records, searches, and my own archive of results packets. The A/B/C/D assignments might not be 100% correct, but I think they're pretty close. I started doing this after getting some feedback from the first round post.

    The list of high schools that this year's first round bid recipients attended is in the aforementioned post.

    I'm planning to do an analysis of the high school careers/experiences of the debaters that clear at the NDT this year… I think that's the best gauge of "top tier" (instead of trying to come up with an arbitrary "first round plus X" ranking before the tournament; I don't have enough familiarity with the college circuit to do something like that justice). I also like Trevor's idea of breaking this down by region/district; I'll probably do that at some point, too.

  4. Chris Crowe

    It would take a ton of research, but I wonder which primarily regional/local high school has qualified the most debaters to the NDT in a single year.

    My alma mater (Cheyenne East High School, Wyoming) had 6 representatives in both 2005 & 2006. Can anyone out there top that? My guess would be a Kansas school.

  5. Austin

    <blockquote cite="#commentbody-8304">
    Chris Crowe :
    It would take a ton of research, but I wonder which primarily regional/local high school has qualified the most debaters to the NDT in a single year.
    My alma mater (Cheyenne East High School, Wyoming) had 6 representatives in both 2005 & 2006. Can anyone out there top that? My guess would be a Kansas school.

    2010 – Chattahoochee had six
    2009 – Chattahoochee had eight(Ovais Inamullah, Maggy Warden, Mike Lacy, Tommy Beyer, Brittany Cambre, Adam Schmidt, John Warden, Garret Abelkop)

  6. Holden

    I don't know if Chattahoochee falls under the category of "primarily regional/local" but that's probably up for debate.

  7. J Herndon

    Hooch is absolutely not just regional/local travel – for the record.

    Excellent post Bill. I have had several conversations with other coaches about how certain schools and states are better represented in both college debate and are nationally competitive. I think you would find that the state of Kansas is a real "hotbed" for national success [in my opinion the travel restrictions leave those students hungry for more debate plus KU is an amazing program where Harris is the man].

    I anticipate your Ndt clearing teams breakdown.

    Oh, and, go hooch

  8. TimAlderete

    Bill – what are the size of the starting pools? How many debaters in HS have "Exceptional national circuit success", how many with "national circuit experience" and how many " competed only on local and regional circuits"?

    How would you go about determining those pools? Do you think that the NFL has numbers on that? It does sound like something that would be labor/time intensive to get, so I'm not asking you to do it; it just seems something that would be particularly informative about the final results.

  9. Rohan Sadagopal

    I'm waiting for some real sabermetrics on the site pretty soon. If only there was a way to calculate VORP (or I guess VORD) or Win Shares.

    What was the criteria for distinguishing between categories B and C? For example, the 2 Minnesota debaters who qualified, Logan Chin and Arif Hasan both debated at several national circuit tournaments, but none outside of the midwest area. Which category did you have them in?

  10. Alex Bennett

    I think this has relevance….

    I'm a high-school LDer right now and want to do college policy debate after I graduate. I have a few questions about the transition;

    1, How difficult is it to make the switch? I have a pretty good substantive understanding of policy (I run lots of policy-style arguments in LD), however a lot of the structural differences are unknown to me (besides the differences in the speech structure). How long would you think it would take me to learn these differences?

    2, How expensive is college policy? I'd probably want to travel often, but I lack the financial means to do so. Additionally, if travel is expensive, is there any ways I can reduce the cost through scholarships/financial aid?

    3, How much work on average does a primarily K team have to do? I've heard that teams that run policymaking cases have to do shit tons of work, but I haven't heard anything conclusive about the workload for K debaters.

    4, Whats the difference between CEDA and the NDT?

    5, How does one qualify to the NDT? Does it feature a similar bid system to the TOC or something different?

    6, How many debaters with no high school policy experience have been successful? Realistically, what are the chances someone with no high school experience can do well in college policy?

    Thanks in advanced.

  11. David Mullins

    The more work you do the better K debater you will be, and anyone who says otherwise is lying. Ks that are specific, unexpected, well thought out and well explained do not just pop up on Evazon. They take work and not the easy kind.

  12. Collin Roark

    Alex, I can answer a few of your questions

    2. Most college programs, if not all, will cover your travel expenses

    3. More important than k or policy is WHERE you debate at – a good way to get the feel for how much work you will be expected to do is to ask the coaches or debaters – they'll be pretty honest and tell you what's up.

    4/5. CEDA = national tournament where any/everyone can attend. Attendants for the NDT are determined through a district system divided by states, schools, etc – you compete within your district and are ranked at the end which determines if you "get out of districts". There are two other ways to qualify – you can be ranked a first round (top 16 in the nation) as a result of your performance throughout the normal college season. If you are a) not a first round and b) dont make it out of districts, you can apply for a second round which is done through another ranking process.

  13. Lincoln Garrett

    Alex, to answer one of your questions:

    6. My partner started as a novice at Liberty. His debate background consisted of doing LD in South Carolina. This is his 5th semester in debate and he is going to the NDT. Liberty as well as several other colleges have a history of taking kids with no high school experience (literally none, not even LD) and working with them to become very competitive college debaters.

  14. Layne Kirshon

    "3, How much work on average does a primarily K team have to do? I’ve heard that teams that run policymaking cases have to do shit tons of work, but I haven’t heard anything conclusive about the workload for K debaters."

    shoe-horning yourself into "k" debater v "policy" debater will significantly stunt your success. the best debaters can go for anything.

    Regardless being good at the K requires a significant amount of work, even if it is a different kind of work. While you generally need fewer cards (or at least can get away with fewer cards) than if you want to go for politics and case every round, cutting *good* K cards take substantially more time on average than cutting good politics cards. The literature is generally denser and you have to sift your way through a lot of literature that's good in the abstract on the argument but not good as applied to debate. Reading a new K also requires you to do more pre-tournament practice speeches and thinking about the argument more than a new politics DA or impact turning a new adv.

  15. Bill Batterman Post author

    I too dislike it when debaters self-identify as "K debaters" or "politics debaters". I'll appeal to authority with a card to support Layne's "debater flex good" arg:

    Jarrod ATCHISON, Director of Debate and Assistant Professor of Speech and Drama at Trinity University, 2008
    [Judge Ballot from the Final Round of the 2008 National Debate Tournament, Available Online at… Accessed 03-16-2010]

    7. Debater Flex is the wave of the future: I would have loved to have been a part of the Dartmouth coaching staff and squad when they were brainstorming a negative strategy for this debate. Although they had an extremely limited amount of time, they had two fantastic debaters in Josh and Kade that could execute a wide range of arguments leaving no option unavailable. In this debate, they had two case specific counterplans, a well developed kritik, two topicality arguments, etc…This debate reminded me that debaters who self identify as “policy” or “kritik” are missing out on a wide range of ways to win. Forget the labels, just think of everything as an argument. Some arguments require more understanding than others, but they are just arguments. If you want to be able to take on a new high tech aff with less than 45 minutes of prep before the final round of the NDT, the last thing that you want to tell your coach/partner is “I can’t argue ______.” Debater flex is the past, present, and the future and I hope that students will see Josh and Kade’s 1NC as an example of how important it is to be versatile.

  16. David Petersen

    @Alex, I know Sarah Spring who debated at Miami of Ohio in college with very little (if any) high school policy exp cleared at the NDT twice. She now is a grad assistant at the University of Iowa.

    Also some of the best advice I heard all year from a certian coach whos name I won’t yell out was that too be a good “K debater” you first have to master the art “policy debater”.

    2) At most colleges in order to debate it costs you nothing. Supplies are usually also bought by the team. Scholorships it depends a little more on where you can go and can vary. Some schools do not offer the traditional debate scholorship while others do.

  17. Malgor

    did i hear someone say scholarships?

    i got all kinds of them. i can also reference you to other people who gots 'em too.

    there are a lot of programs what will start you in jv and develop you despite high school experience.

    if you want to debate in college there is a way to make it happen. some kids are silly, though. they get offered huge scholarships and don't even answer e-mails accepting or declining! who would have thought.

    even if you are going to a CC, though, debating in college is for you and you can get it done if you want.

    1. Bill Batterman Post author

      It's on my list of prospective posts but I'm not sure if I'll have time… that list is pretty long at the moment.

      Looking back on this thread I also realized I never posted the NDT elim breakdown from last season. I actually did create the spreadsheet but I never got around to creating the graphs and writing the post… that's also something I'll add to my list.

      Thanks for reminding me about this, Vinay.

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