Contemporary competitive intercollegiate speech and debate in the United States continues to evolve from its origins in the 19th-century lyceum movement, interschool speaking competitions, and university literary societies.
But the collegiate speech debate isn’t just for competition purposes – it’s also used as a teaching method in post-secondary institutions across diverse disciplines, from public health and political science to math, marketing and accounting.
Students develop strong transferable skills while also learning new knowledge, and these skills include collaboration, creativity, communication, and critical thinking. Indeed, collegiate debate skills can be transformed into workplace-ready skills!
Being part of a winning collegiate debate team isn’t just about the prestige – it’s also about the proficient ability to communicate your arguments, persuade people toward a shared course of action, and initiate change! Furthermore, it’s about the camaraderie you enjoy with your peers and coaches in your debate team and the collegiate debate community.
Colleges and Universities with the Best Debate Teams
Harvard University has its Harvard College Debating Union (HCDU), among the world’s winningest collegiate debate organizations with the highest number of American Parliamentary Debate Association (APDA) National Championships – eight, as of the last count. Established in 1981, HCDU also has three World Universities Debating Championship titles – 2014, 2016 and 2018 – aside from numerous final round positions.
Such is the success of Harvard University that it’s considered the current #1 debate club in the American parliamentary style, but it’s also known for its members’ prowess in the British parliamentary style.
The Harvard University Debating Union prides itself on being more than just a force of nature in the debate community – it’s also a family and a community on its own!
University of California Berkeley Debate Society of Berkeley, the largest on-campus academic debate team, competes at the international levels in American and British parliamentary styles. With its fame reaching Los Angeles and beyond, the Society has won the World Universities Debating Championship, too.
The Freshman Debating Society and the Sophomore Debating Society are notable for their extemporaneous speaking practice sessions and annual interclass debate contests. Cal Debate is active in the National Debate Tournament circuit, emphasizing the policy debate format.
Members of these debate teams have won a wide range of championship titles and finalist awards, too, including the Penguin Invitational, UCLA IV, and USC IV. Their appearances include the US Universities Debating Championships, America’s Cup, APDA at Stanford University, and Chicago, and the Edinburgh Cup.
Georgetown University formed Georgetown Debate, which has a long history stretching back to 1938. Today, Georgetown University provides the team with robust support as it continues to dominate debate programs.
Members of the Georgetown University Debate team have been awarded the Top Speaker Award at the NDT six times, among the top three among US universities, aside from several Top Ten finishers.
Georgetown University also conducts a top-notch debate workshop for aspiring and current debaters during the summer months. The workshop focuses on the public forum, policy and public speaking.
The University of Kansas in Kansas City is a nationally-ranked state university with a winning intercollegiate debate tradition in 1885. Its University of Kansas Debate team specializes in policy debate and has won numerous awards and competes in about 20 tournaments every debate season across the country.
Located in Kansas City, KU Debate’s track record includes the highest number of qualifying teams in the NDT circuit of any collegiate debate program.
The University of Kansas has also won six NDT national titles, made 17 NDT Final Four appearances, and achieved a No. 1 ranking in NDT varsity rankings for three years and #1 CEDA national ranking beyond Kansas City in 2019.
As a completely student-run organization, Dartmouth Parli trains its members not just in collegiate debate but also in effective management practices. Members compete in APDA tournaments and the international circuit specializing in the British parliamentary style, many of which are hosted by prestigious universities like Brown, Yale, and Johns Hopkins.
Dartmouth College has several debating awards, including the annual Brooks Cup for Debating, awarded to the year’s outstanding debater; the Lockwood Debating Prize for debaters who have demonstrated competitive excellence; and the Bailey First-Year Debating Award for freshman members. The university also hosts an annual tournament.
Students interested in becoming part of Dartmouth College Parli must attend the information session conducted during the start of the academic year.
The Northwestern University Debate Society touts itself as the country’s oldest intercollegiate debating organization, with its roots dating back to 1855. During its 2021-2022 season, the team has enjoyed its best banner years with several tournament victories at the 76th NDT held at James Madison University.
But this isn’t the most significant win for the team either, as Northwestern University debaters have won the NDT title 13 times, the highest in the country! Northwestern University debaters have also won NDT’s outstanding individual speaker awards ten times.
Team members travel around the country from mid-September until late March for competitions. With at least 25 tournaments and nearly 1,000 debates each year, no wonder students have exceptional argumentation skills!
With 50+ years of experience under their collective belt, members of the Georgia Debate Union are well-known for their outstanding competitive policy debate skills!
The debate team at the University of Georgia has achieved numerous finals and semifinal placements in NDT tournaments. Among its most notable achievements are the perfect 8-0 record in the preliminaries (1971 and 2003). In the last seven years, the Georgie Debate Union has also won several awards in the NDT and ADA.
The University of Georgia has a liberal policy regarding its debate team, including the freedom to explore diverse argumentation styles and strategies.
The University of Michigan Debate Program nurtures the members of the Michigan Debate Team in their training sessions and debate competitions. Members travel across the country for national debate competitions against top universities and participate in community outreach activities that promote the art of debate.
With its commitment to improved student participation in intercollegiate debate, the University of Michigan is a magnet for the best debaters. Among its debate squad’s accomplishments are second-place finishers in the NDT circuit six times and top five finalists for several years.
The United States Naval Academy Debate Team fields the most capable midshipmen for intercollegiate debate competitions.
The NDT started at the US Military Academy, and the annual US Naval Academy Debate Tournament enjoys huge popularity among colleges and universities on the East Coast. The US Naval Academy gives the Stanley W. Legro Award, a coveted award granted to midshipmen with outstanding contributions to its debate circle.
The debate group also competes in the Ethics Bowl competitions, where participants give arguments regarding pressing ethical issues in diverse disciplines, including business, medicine, and economics. The US Naval Academy Debate Team has enjoyed huge success in these competitions, a testament to their commitment and competence in debating.
The Liberty University Debate Team is a force to reckon with! Liberty University competes in numerous national intercollegiate debate competitions. Since Liberty University is a Christian institution, its members put forth Christian-centered arguments during debate competitions and, thus, put their skills in the service of God and for humanity’s benefit.
And it shows in the lengthy list of awards that Liberty University has accumulated through the years in ADA, NDT, and the Cross Examination Debate Association (CEDA) circuits.
Among the recognitions of Liberty University Debate Team is the ADA Sweepstakes First Place for 20+ years running, the ADA National Tournament First Place Varsity (1197, 2012), and Junior Varsity (2019, 2020), and the Triple Sweepstakes national championship rankings since 2005.
Founded in 1974, the George Mason University Debate Team is a consistent top-five program in the triple sweepstakes of the ADA, NDT, and CEDA tournaments.
In the 2022 season, Mason won the US Naval Academy Debate Tournament, the spring semester’s sixth tournament where its novices reached the finals. The team also graced prestigious debate competitions, including the Dartmouth Round Robin, the ADA JV/Novice Fall Championship, and the Wake Forest Varsity Debate Tournament.
The Mason Debate Team is also the Middle and High School Debate Institute host, the largest of its kind for high school students in Virginia. Students within the sixth and the eighth grades train in the public forum debate style, while the ninth to 12th grades train in the Lincoln-Douglas policy and public forum styles.
The Barkley Forum for Debate, Deliberation, and Dialogue at Emory University is a nationally-ranked debate group with expertise in policy debate. Members are encouraged to be inquiry-driven while adopting the four Cs of debate – creativity, communication, collaboration, and critical thinking – and adding Emory’s fifth C – civic awareness and engagement.
Members gain valuable management experiences through community-oriented service projects like the Barkley Forum for High Schools and Emory National Debate Institute.
The college debate program at Indiana University is a collaborative project of the School of Public and Environmental Affairs, College of Arts and Sciences, and Office of the Vice Provost of Undergraduate Education. The partnership created the leading intercollegiate debate group of undergraduates with a winning streak in national competitions.
Indiana University Debate has hosted NDT and CEDA tournaments in the Bloomington campus and fielded winning teams to the NDT. The members specialize in public debates, policy debates, and intramural debates across the country, with numerous awards in the novice, junior varsity, and open categories.
Indiana Debate has also participated in friendly competitions against Japanese and British debaters, thus cementing its status as a strong debate group in the Midwest.
Since 1835, Wake Forest University has established an enviable reputation for its consistent success in the national intercollegiate tournaments.
Both NDT champions and novices share their teams’ accomplishments in the university’s 185-year-old debating tradition.
Wake Forest University also hosts several debating tournaments that attract the best and brightest debate teams! Franklin R. Shirley Classic College Debate Tournament introduced innovations like case list information, six-minute rebuttals, and time limits for judges’ decisions.
The university has received a five-year $5 million grant to support its debate program and create the John Kevin Medica Scholarships for outstanding debaters and a faculty endowment.
A state university known for its strong research programs, James Madison University, is proud of its JMU Debate! Considered a top debate squad for more than a decade, it’s also the host of several public events promoting civil discourse.
The university is also the host of the annual Madison Cup, a public debate competition anchored on Madison’s belief that a healthy democracy features informed and civil discourse.
JMU Debate won the 17th Madison Cup in April 2022, with undergraduates debating about reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the country. The university last won the Madison Cup in 2003.
Competitors in previous Cup competitions included the big names in an intercollegiate debate like Harvard. Cash prizes range from $5,000 for the winning team and $2,000 for individual debaters.
The University of Kentucky, a state university, also has a winning intercollegiate debate group with numerous appearances in the final rounds of national tournaments.
Among the significant achievements of UC Berkeley is the Rex Copeland Award which recognizes the team’s best performance during the season and ranked #1 of the team with automatic bids to the NDT circuit.
The College of Communication and Information is the host of the Kentucky Intercollegiate Debate team, and its extensive training program has been instrumental in the latter’s success. The team has competed against powerhouses like Harvard University, Wake Forest University, and the University of California Berkeley.
The 2022 season is marked by many victories, such as the first-round bid, which continues Kentucky’s string of successes. Kentucky has qualified for the NDT for 46 years and counting.
The University of Mary Washington maintains its top-ranking position in NDT and CEDA rankings. The UMW Debate Team has also adopted its debate styles to the demands of the pandemic, with its emphasis on online and hybrid formats
Recently, it has achieved a first-place finish at the ADA’s Fall Championship Tournament.
The University of Mary Washington emphasizes debate as a co-curricular activity that strengthens the students’ broad liberal education in preparation for a productive career and meaningful citizenship.
Michigan State University has won three NDT championship titles – 2004, 2006, and 2010 – and the 1995 CEDA Nationals, and it’s considered among the country’s best colleges with debate programs. Its MSU debate teams are also among the youngest, with the first ones tracing their roots only to the 1950s.
More than 30 teams have advanced to the NDT’s elimination rounds and received 19 first-round bids so far through the years.
The Honors College is home to the debate teams of the state university, proof that debate is considered a rigorous activity requiring significant intellect and investments in time.
In the 2022 season, MSU Debate performed exceptionally well in the ADA National Tournament, placing it among the top eight teams. Members may be offered limited scholarships for returning members and incoming policy debaters.
The strong debating tradition at Trinity University started in 1908, and by 1912, the university organized the Texas Inter-Collegiate Debating League with Texas Christian University and Southwestern University.
Among the best accomplishments that Trinity University Debate has achieved include the 2010 Naval Academy championship and qualifying teams for the 2011 and 2012 NDT tournaments. Members have also made the university’s Sweet Sixteen performance at the NDT, and it’s one of the reasons for its consistent top 25 placement in national competitions.
Members can apply for the Baker Duncan Debate Scholarships, which offers a $10,000 annual award to the best debaters.
With its 100-plus years of history, the Gonzaga University Debate Program offers students enrichment opportunities, including debate contests and public exhibitions.
Gonzaga University was also among the first schools that participated in the West Point-hosted first NDT competition in 1947. Generations of its policy debaters have participated in NDT and CEDA tournaments and continue to earn national rankings and first-round bids.
Members are invited to complete the 3-credit Argumentation and Debate course to enhance their research and argumentation skills.
Also worth mentioning are the exceptional debate clubs and organizations at Boston College, Stanford University, Cornell University, Missouri State University, Baylor University, Wayne State University, Monmouth University, Concordia College, Samford University, and Georgia State University.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the difference between high school and college debates?
College debate programs usually have better support from the administration than their high school counterparts. The financial aid and huge amount of support come from business and non-financial firms, particularly as college debate teams travel more to regional and national competitions.
College debaters also benefit from financial aid, such as federal aid and private scholarships, which finance part or all of their tuition expenses.
The overall quality of debate in college is also more competitive than in high school, befitting the wider recognition and higher prizes at stake.
Will previous debating experience be an asset for college debating success?
Yes, it is, but many of the top schools don’t require prior debating experience in high school. Novices are trained in the process of debate as equals, but those with prior experience may find the transition easier and faster. The prospect of a new school is exciting on its own, too!
What’s the time commitment in a debate program?
There’s no one-size-fits-all answer, so you should discuss the time required when inquiring about debate programs’ rules and regulations. Weekly team meetings are common, and two-hour work on research and practice is typical.
Can you succeed as a debater and in your academics?
Yes, but your effective time management skills must be in place, and your strong commitment to overall success must be sustained! You must learn to juggle your academics, debate activities, and extracurriculars in a balanced way, a challenging goal but an achievable one.
Are there academic requirements to stay in a debate group?
Most debate programs have strict academic requirements for students to maintain their team membership, usually a minimum overall GPA and minimum grades in individual courses. These academic requirements may also be part of maintaining eligibility for scholarships.
Being part of a college debate circle and participating in college debate programs has its academic and time management challenges, but offers the rewarding experience of expanding your knowledge and improving your skills.
Choose a university based on your personal goals while also considering your collegiate debating ambitions.