National Circuit High School Policy Debate Participation is Cratering

Since the beginning of the season, it has been obvious to me that participation in high school policy debate has declined. Anecdotally, tournament fields have been noticeably smaller and fewer schools have been actively competing. I’ve been concerned about this for months, but I thought maybe it was mostly an issue with the tournaments I’ve been (virtually) attending. While some tournaments might be smaller, I hoped that others might have grown and offset the difference. Has overall participation really declined? And if so, by how much?

I decided to find out. Based on my research, the answers are “yes” and “by a lot.” Participation in policy debate has declined significantly from 2020 to 2021. And it has declined even more significantly from 2019 to 2021.

I started this project a few weeks ago when the National Speech and Debate Association released its updated membership information for the 2020-2021 season. This data makes it possible to compare NSDA-tracked participation for the 2018-2019, 2019-2020, and 2020-2021 seasons.

According to the NSDA, 10,516 students earned points in policy debate in 2018-2019, 10,409 students earned points in policy debate in 2019-2020, and 7,223 students earned points in policy debate in 2020-2021. That represents a 1% decline in participation from 2018-2019 to 2019-2020 and a 44% decline in participation from 2019-2020 to 2020-2021. Yikes.

The other two most popular NSDA debate events — Lincoln-Douglas and Public Forum — also saw significant declines from 2019-2020 to 2020-2021. In LD, participation fell 34% (from 11,219 to 8,316). In PF, participation fell 31% (from 18,379 to 14,029).

While this data is troubling, it isn’t enough by itself to prove that policy debate participation has precipitously declined. For one thing, it only tracks the number of NSDA member students who have competed in at least one round of policy debate during the season. Many policy debaters are not members of the NSDA — either because their schools are not NSDA members, or perhaps because their schools did not purchase NSDA memberships during the first pandemic season.

It is also possible that the shift to online/virtual debate allowed participating students to compete in more rounds than they would have in a normal season. If that was the case, the decline in the number of students participating may have been offset by an increase in competition rounds by those students who did continue debating.

Finally, this data is only available through last season, and the most noticeable participation decline seems to be occurring during the current (2021-2022) year.

In an attempt to obtain better data about current policy debate participation trends, I created a spreadsheet that lists the number of policy debate teams and schools entered at “national circuit” tournaments in 2019, 2020, and 2021.1

To eliminate as many variables as possible, I included only TOC qualifying tournaments that were hosted for each of the past three seasons during the months of September, October, or November. Twenty-one tournaments fit those criteria.2

I used this data to calculate the percentage changes in entries (for teams and schools) from 2019 to 2020, from 2020 to 2021, and from 2019 to 2021.

This data covers the last pre-pandemic season with typical in-person tournaments (2019), the first pandemic season with entirely online/virtual tournaments (2020), and the current pandemic season with mostly online tournaments and a few in-person tournaments (2021).3

What does this data reveal?

In the first pandemic season, policy debate participation at TOC qualifying tournaments in September, October, and November declined by 6%, but the number of schools competing increased by 17%.

However, these shifts in participation were uneven. For octafinals and quarterfinals bid tournaments, team entries increased by 14% and school entries increased by 17% and 25%, respectively. For semifinals bid tournaments, team entries grew by 8% and school entries grew by 22%. But for finals bid tournaments, team entries actually fell by 46% while school entries increased by 11%.

On the whole, this is basically what one might have expected as policy debate tournaments shifted from in-person to online/virtual formats. While some schools chose or were forced to reduce their tournament competition, other schools were able to increase their tournament attendance because of decreased costs and the lack of required travel.

This also explains why participation shifted from finals and semifinals bid tournaments to quarterfinals and octafinals bid tournaments. With reduced barriers to entry, teams and schools that would have historically competed mostly within their geographic region were able to redesign their schedules to attend all of the biggest national tournaments regardless of “location” (which for online tournaments was mostly meaningless).

Some of the big tournaments maintained relatively similar field sizes. Greenhill, for example, had 104 entries in 2019 and 103 entries in 2020. Others grew dramatically: Kentucky went from 77 to 134 entries (a 43% increase), Grapevine went from 66 to 94 entries (a 30% increase), and Michigan went from 107 to 148 entries (a 28% increase).

Overall, 13 of the 21 tournaments on the list had more teams entered in 2020 than they did in 2019. That includes 13 of the 14 octafinals, quarterfinals, and semifinals bid tournaments; all five finals bid tournaments had fewer entries in 2020 than in 2019.

At the same time, 17 of the 21 tournaments had more schools entered in 2020 than in 2019. Only two tournaments — KCKCC and Washburn Rural; both finals bids — had fewer schools enter their tournaments in 2020 than in 2019.

While there were warning signs — Would the “upward” shift to higher bid level tournaments be sustainable? Would participation at the smaller regional tournaments bounce back? — the data from 2020 was relatively positive. Despite the shift to online/virtual competition during an ongoing pandemic that was substantially disrupting normal school operations throughout the country, policy debate tournaments were happening and students were competing in them at comparable levels to the previous season.

Unfortunately, the data from this season tells a different story. Across the board, participation at TOC qualifying tournaments has cratered. This chart shows the bottom line numbers:

Remarkably, team entries have declined from 2020 to 2021 in 20 of the 21 tournaments on this list (the other — Marist — had the same number of entries in both seasons). And school entries have declined in all 21 tournaments.

Overall, tournaments have had 45% fewer team entries and 50% fewer school entries in 2021 than they had in 2020. And this trend has affected all bid levels: by team entries, octafinals bid tournament participation is down 21%, quarterfinals bid tournament participation is down 56%, semifinals bid tournament participation is down 75%, and finals bid tournament participation is down 59%.

The two biggest tournaments on the list — Michigan and Glenbrooks — declined by 23% and 25%, respectively. Most quarterfinals bid tournaments also saw massive drops in entries: Bronx Science (121%), Grapevine (71%), Kentucky (63%), and Long Beach (55%) all declined by 50% or more from 2020.

And compared to 2019, the numbers look even worse. From the last pre-pandemic season to the current season, overall team entries at these 21 TOC qualifying tournaments has declined by 57%, and with an average of 22% fewer school entries.

Again, this decline has varied across tournament bid levels. The biggest tournaments have seen only negligible declines, with octafinals bid entries declining by only 3%. But the “lesser” tournaments have been hit hard: quarterfinals bid tournaments have had 33% fewer entries, semifinals bid tournaments have had 60% fewer entries, and finals bid tournaments have had 136% fewer entries.

This decline in participation has been sudden and severe. And from what I can tell from entry lists at upcoming tournaments, it doesn’t seem likely to end anytime soon. For example, the Blake tournament (an octafinals bid) had 128 entries in 2019 and 117 entries in 2020, but has only 75 entries for 2021 (at the time I am writing this). Anecdotally, other tournaments are in a similar position.

You can view the spreadsheet here:

Is it possible that participation as non-TOC qualifying tournaments has increased to at least partially offset these losses? I have not gathered the necessary data to definitely say “no,” but anecdotally this seems extremely unlikely. On the contrary, participation at non-TOC qualifying tournaments has decreased even more significantly — at least based on anecdotal evidence. In Georgia, for example, local tournaments that had healthy fields before the pandemic have struggled to even “make” this semester.

So what has caused this precipitous decline in participation?

The most obvious hypothesis is that students, coaches, parents, and/or schools are dissatisfied with online/virtual tournaments. For students and coaches, online tournaments aren’t as fun or socially and academically rewarding as in-person tournaments. For parents and schools, online tournaments may not be “real” enough to justify tradeoffs with other activities or absences from class. Together, these trends have convinced many students to quit debate entirely or to significantly scale back their participation. This seems like the most probable explanation.

Another hypothesis is that we are witnessing a time-compressed repeat of the national circuit’s hollowing out of regional and local debate. As teams and schools choose to enter only the largest “national” tournaments, the remaining tournaments struggle to sustain competitive fields. At the same time, the local tournament circuits that nurture and sustain debate programs have largely disappeared. When coaches and judges aren’t regularly gathering in-person and working together to create debate opportunities for one another’s students, their relative investment in the activity is likely to wane. Hosting an online/virtual tournament brings its own challenges, but it is not the same collective project of shared community-building that goes into the hosting of an in-person tournament.

This might partially explain why participation mostly survived the first pandemic season but not the second. While varsity participation at the most competitive tournaments was relatively strong last year, the second and third layers of participation — those involving less skilled and less experienced varsity debaters, JV debaters, and novice debaters — were probably significantly weaker. This season, that weakness has become visible in varsity divisions: with fewer students developing their skills and passion for debate last year, there are fewer students ready for (or interested in) high-level varsity competition. This is what happened in many areas of the country over the last few decades as the national circuit grew and local circuits slowly collapsed. If this is right, next year’s participation numbers will be even worse.

There are other possible explanations. Perhaps the academic and mental health struggles associated with the pandemic have taken their toll on students, and they are having trouble continuing to balance the demands of school and debate. Perhaps the nationwide return of in-person school gave students more opportunities to participate in in-person activities, and they opted for those instead of more online/virtual debate. Perhaps fewer students participated in summer debate institutes, and those that did not opted to switch to a different debate (or non-debate) activity. Perhaps this year’s water resources protection topic is less interesting than previous topics, and students are losing motivation to debate it.

Most likely, it is a combination of all these (and other) factors. The question now is whether this trend will be or can be reversed. Will the (probably slow, phased-in) return of in-person debate naturally rejuvenate policy debate participation? Will the schools that have largely opted out of online/virtual competition come back when in-person tournaments return? Will the current cohorts of novice and second year students be large enough and committed enough to sustain debate competitions for the next few years? Will the regional and local tournaments that have been hollowed out by the pandemic still exist if and when participation numbers rebound?

I don’t know the answer to any of these questions, but everyone who cares about high school policy debate should be thinking about them. Participation is cratering, and it’s going to take a lot of time and effort to reverse that trend — if it is indeed reversible. I certainly hope so.


1. I obtained the entry data from; I manually counted the number of schools entered at each tournament.

2. While there are other national circuit-style tournaments that do not award TOC bids, this list of tournaments is a good proxy for “national circuit” policy debate.

All but one of the tournaments maintained the same TOC bid level in all three seasons; Westminster was a finals bid in 2019 and a semifinals bid in 2020 and 2021.

I excluded St. Mark’s from this list because it was hosted in October 2019, February 2021, and October 2021. As much as possible, I wanted to eliminate “time of year” as a variable; while some of the included tournaments changed weekends, they were mostly held about the same time in each of the three seasons.

3. As far as I can tell, the only in-person 2021 tournaments on this list are Washburn Rural, Blue Valley Southwest, and KCKCC.

One thought on “National Circuit High School Policy Debate Participation is Cratering

  1. Pingback: An Updated List of TOC Qualifying Tournaments in Policy Debate, 1992-1993 to 2021-2022 | The 3NR

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