Competitive debate has been a mainstay of many schools for decades. With multiple speech and debate programs available to students at a national scale, and hundreds of thousands of students participating across the country, there is no doubt that debate programs are an influential part of many student’s education. Competitive debate programs are continuing to expand and make their mark in many new schools. And with hundreds of local tournaments of the major speech and debate programs happening from December through February, the next few months are going to be filled with debating magic.

All of this excitement about upcoming debate competitions got us interested in exploring more details about how these programs work. Particularly, we’ve seen some interesting discussion questioning if the current model of debate competitions actually the best way to do debate?

First of all, we have to recognize that there is no doubt that student debate provides valuable life and career skills for participants. For example:

  • Debate provides practice in developing sound and logical arguments to complex questions.
  • Debate gives students an opportunity to practice speaking in front of an audience and thinking on their feet.
  • Debate encourages students to show initiative and leadership, developing agency along the way.
  • Debate helps students expand their minds and increase their understanding of important issues.

However debate programs have recently come under fire from academics questioning whether the structure of these competitions is actually beneficial for students in the long run. Jonathan Ellis, an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of California Santa Cruz recently penned a New York Times Op-Ed bringing into focus concerns with the way debate competitions engage students.

While debate programs have been a strong educational components in the lives of many political figures, lawyers, and academicians, there is a growing concern about the way these programs ask students to defend preconceived notions at all costs rather than analyze problems with critical thinking to come to a conclusion. In traditional debate competitions, teams are assigned at random to argue one or the other side of an issue. Rather than being asked to analyze the question and come to their own reasonable conclusion, they are given a conclusion, whether they endorse it or not, and told to work backward from there to come up with the best arguments to make their given conclusion come out on top.

In this structure the goal is not to determine the most reasonable or fair-minded approach to an issue, but to defend a given claim at all costs. Dr. Ellis and his colleagues argue that this, “discourages the kind of listening and reasoning that is critical to a healthy democracy.” With the increasingly partisan atmosphere of our political system, when it seems that many of our public officials simply want to dig in their heels rather than actually think about the issues at hand, it seems that there may be an opportunity for a student debate program that helps change this cultural norm.

Rather than focusing debate on defending a position at all costs, would it be more beneficial to help students gain the courage to admit when they might be wrong, and focus on critical thinking and analysis to move debate toward meaningful resolutions?

How would you shape this new way of doing student debate competitions? We’d love to hear your comments particularly from students or educators that have been involved in academic debate competitions. And if you are interested in speech and debate, be sure to check out our list of all of the major academic Speech and Debate competitions on our ICS database. You can also follow these competitions through our system to stay up on new milestones and opportunities!

ICS Speech and Debate competitions list.



For many students, debate club is a staple of high school. Just like football, basketball, and other sports, Debate Teams give students a chance to challenge themselves and refine valuable skills for their future. Although their time on a high school debate team will come to an end, that doesn’t mean they can’t follow that passion and expand upon these critical skills in college. Many universities all over the country are recognized for their skilled debate teams and can help students refine their own skills to take into their future careers. Though individual and whole-school winners of national debate competitions change every year, some universities have demonstrated long-lasting staying power as top schools in debating.

Debate has been noted as an important skill for careers in everything from business management to law and public policy. Bill Wisneski, an Emmy winning production coordinator who led the Cal Poly debate team to success in the 1990s notes, “Working in the broadcasting industry, I use the skills acquired from debate on a daily basis. The ability to organize and articulate ideas clearly, think quickly, research effectively, and see both sides of every issue are skills that I directly attribute to debate.”

Former policy debaters, and lawyers, Tom Fulkerson and Wes Lotz wrote for the Houston Law Review that, “Debate still teaches skills necessary for legal success, whether in the courtroom or out (where most law is practiced). These skills include: the ability to read, and adapt to, judicial preferences; the ability to “turn” an opponent’s evidence and arguments in one’s favor; and the ability to perform primary and secondary source research.”

Wherever you think you might land as a career, if you’re looking to expand your employability after college, think about checking out our top 10 universities to strengthen your debate skills! There are many schools with strong debate teams, but these are the most highly competitive programs in recent standings and have all demonstrated a great opportunity for students to strengthen their personal debate skills.


Cornell University

10. Cornell 

The Cornell Speech and Debate Union is comprised of three different teams—Individual Speech, Policy Team, and Worlds Debate Team—is one of the largest and most successful organizations in the United States and the world. They participate in over 14 competitions each year, and even if they don’t earn first, their strong showing places them as quarterfinalists, semifinalists, and finalists, always receiving awards.

The Policy Team is ranked 10th in the nation, while the Worlds Debate Team regularly holds a spot in the top 10 global debate programs. CSDU’s Speech Team has also produced multiple national champions.


9. Princeton

Though the Princeton Debate Panel has been around since 1765, they were an APDA’s founding members 1983. Since then, the PDP continues to have unparalleled success, winning the Team of the Year award an astounding eight times as well as the Speaker of the Year Award a record nine times. The PDP is one of the world’s leading international debating teams, with members unfailingly competing in late elimination rounds.

Many of PDP’s alumni have gone onto to become highly successful members of society including Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, Jason Goldman—twitter and Google executive, Woodrow Wilson, and Senator Ted Cruz just to name a few.


George Washington University

8. George Washington

 Over 200 years ago, the George Washington University Debate & Literary Society was originally founded in 1822 as the Columbian College. Also known as GWDebate, the team ranked third in last year’s ADPA for their outstanding second place performances in Speaker and Novice of the Year. GWDebate has remained in the ADPA’s top ten rankings for the past five years.


Stanford University

7. Stanford

The APDA ranks the Stanford Debate Society (SDS) as number two in the country for the current academic year. Numerous members of the SDS have won individual titles, but the school only earned one APDA National Championship in 2008. The SDS frequently engages in in public debates on various issues to bring both the university and surrounding community together.  They host the Stanford Invitational high school tournament and the Stanford National Forensic Institute summer speech & debate camp every year for high school students nationwide.


Rutgers University

6. Rutgers

The Rutgers University Debate Union is another relatively new team re-established in 2001, but was originally established in the 1700s as Queens College. .In the 2016-2017 ADPA rankings, they earned first place for Team of the Year. They also earned third for Novice of the Year, and 10th for Speaker of the Year. They’ve consistently earned the top ten spots for both NOTY and SPOTY, and are currently tied for tenth on the 2017-2018 ADPA ranking.


Georgetown University

5. Georgetown

Though not nearly as old as some of the other mentioned programs, the Georgetown Parliamentary, founded in 2013, is a fierce competitor. In 2017, they finished 8th in the nation at the ADPA, and continue to hold the number eight spot for this academic year. 


Yale University

4. Yale

The Yale Debate Association (YDA) is a dominating force in the North America, and it currently ranks fourth in the world. Founded in 1908, the YDA has earned National Champion titles six times from the APDA, including a college of the year award.

From its long-standing presence nationally as a top debate team, YDA has one of the largest alumni networks. Many U.S. Presidents, members of Congress, and other well-known leaders competed in the YDA. In addition to intercollegiate competitions, Yale also hosts an annual high school invitational, giving students from across the country the ability to show off their skills. 


Brandeis University

3. Brandeis

The Brandeis Academic Debate And Speech Society, or BADASS for short (yes, they may win the award for best Debate acronym), isn’t historical, but it is making history. Created in 1997, the BADASS team has since steadily earned its spot on the top ten years after year. They rated sixth in last year’s APDA ranking of College of the Year and placed at the top multiple times for Club of the Year.


Brown University

2. Brown

Starting in 1824 as part of the English department, the Brown Debating Union continually ranks amongst the top schools every year. Nowadays the BDU is a student-run organization that consistently places qualified debaters in top competitions.

The BDU won in the North American Women’s Debating Championships in 2015, earned second place for Club of the Year in 2016, and continues to place varsity teams in the APDA National Championships.


Harvard University

1. Harvard

The Harvard College Debating Union was created in 1981 and has been winning awards ever since. Their titles include the National Championships, World Championships, and the runner-up spots in the North American Championships in both ’92 and ’93. Not to mention HCDU has the most number of National Championships wins. From 2011 – 2015, the pilgrims earned 4 out of 5 awards in the APDA Championships.

Established in 1892, the Harvard Debate Council is not only one of the oldest debate teams in the country, but one of the most successful. This group differs from the HCDU as they focus more on discussing policy.


And don't forget to check out how to get into debate competitions on ICS's competitions database.