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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 6—Florida, Missouri
- 4—Idaho, Maryland, Michigan, Virginia, Washington
- 3—Colorado, District of Columbia, Iowa, Massachusetts, Ohio, Oklahoma
- 2—Louisiana, New Hampshire, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Utah, Wisconsin
- 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.
- 6—Chattahoochee (GA)
- 4—Damien (CA), Glenbrook South (IL)
- 3—Georgetown Day School (DC), Glenbrook North (IL), Shawnee Mission East (KS), Westwood (TX)
- 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.