Why Debate? A Guide for Family Members

Debate family photo

Why Debate? A Guide for Family Members

Is your kid shy? Competitive? Argumentative? We think debate offers something for everyone – and debate could be a great opportunity for your student! Unfamiliar with debate? Find the who, what, when, where, and why of this transformative activity below.

What is debate and the MNUDL?

The Minnesota Urban Debate League (MNUDL) is a nonprofit program of Augsburg University, based in Minneapolis, MN. We provide resources and programming to support competitive academic debate in Twin Cities high schools and middle schools. Our mission is to empower students through competitive academic debate to become engaged learners, critical thinkers, and active global citizens who are effective advocates for themselves and their communities. Currently, MNUDL serves more than 1,300+ students at 40+ partner schools across 9 Twin Cities districts. You can learn which schools we serve at our Schools Involved page. We are part of the larger network of Urban Debate Leagues, where urban centers across the nation are committed to ensuring that all students – regardless of their zip code – can join, lead, and succeed through debate.

Middle school debate image

Reading, writing, listening and speaking – the core four elements of literacy – are constantly practiced in debate. | Photo Credit: Marina Que

So, what is debate? Debate is an after-school activity, but it’s also much more than that. In our model of debate, which is based on national topic policy debate, students take a deep dive into a specific topic that has a pro (affirmative) and con (negative) side that can reasonably be argued. For example, our high school policy debate topic for 2022-23 is: “The United States federal government should substantially increase fiscal redistribution in the United States by adopting a federal jobs guarantee, expanding Social Security, and/or providing a basic income.” In the process of learning how to debate, students will gain deep knowledge of how governmental and economic systems work in the US, as well as compelling arguments for and against these policies. Want to know more about the basic debate structure? Check out this video (8 minutes).

Sounds intimidating? No worries! With the guidance of coaches, students will learn tailored curriculum we’ve developed to guide them from the most basic rookie level to advanced competition over time.

What we love about debate is that it takes complex information and brings it to life! Students get invested in learning because it’s experiential and competitive. They can bring their own knowledge, passion, and personality to the material – plus, take pride in representing their school at tournaments.

What’s a tournament? Debaters collaborate with their teammates at after-school practices, preparing both pro- and con-side cases for out-of-school-time tournaments. At tournaments, each student will have a partner to compete with in a two-person team representing their school. Each partnership engages in three rounds of competition. They’ll have to argue for both the pro and con side at least once – this helps debaters learn to think on their feet and understand others’ perspectives effectively. The students compete in front of volunteer judges, who are trained to listen carefully to students’ arguments and weigh who was most persuasive in the round.


Anyone who attends our tournaments recognizes this smile! Winning an award is an exciting an affirming experience for our hard-working students. | Photo Credit: Marina Que

At the end of our tournament, students have the chance to earn two types of awards: team awards, and speaker awards. The team award is determined by each partnership’s win-loss record. But, even if a team loses each of their rounds, they’ve still got the opportunity to go home with a medal. Judges assign speaker points to each student to reward their individual performance. But no matter how a tournament goes, students always receive constructive feedback from judges so they’ll know how to improve next time.

Who is debate for?

Full group of debaters

Debate is for everyone! These students competed 2+ years in debate, increasing their opportunities for college. 

Who can debate? Our core belief is that debate is for everyone and all students benefit from debate! We’ve seen shy students come out of their shell through debating, and others harness their energy. Students don’t need to be academic high-flyers to succeed in debate. The skills students learn through debate – like argumentation, reading, writing, and public speaking – are fundamental to success in school for students at any entry point. That’s why debate is a top recommendation for students who are learning English as a second language, or for students who are reading below their grade level. With elements of competition, team-building, and learning, debate offers something for every student. You can learn more about our alumni network’s experiences in debate at the MNUDL blog.

Our coaching staff includes at least one teacher and one experienced debate alum per school. If you have any questions about whether debate is appropriate for your student, or special concerns, please contact your team’s teacher coach.

When is the debate season?

East African Debate photo

East African Debate is one of our specialized programs that happens during fall semester. Find more information about our programs below. | Photo Credit: Marina Que

MNUDL offers multiple debate programs across the span of a school year. Please note that each individual coach and school sets their own practice times:

  • NATIONAL TOPIC POLICY DEBATE: In fall semester, we hold national topic policy debate programming at area high schools. This program involves after-school practices and weekend tournaments running from late September through early December, when we host our City Championship. Students who compete at the MSHSL Debate tournament extend their season to January, and those competing in nationals continue practicing until March (UDNC) and even June (NSDA).  Learn more about this program at this High School Debate page.
  • EAST AFRICAN DEBATE: This program is designed for middle and high school students from the East African community in the Twin Cities. Practices will begin in October and the tournament season will run through winter, ending in late January/early February. Because these tournaments are held on weeknights, it is possible for high school students to compete in both East African Debate and Policy Debate. Learn more about this program at the East African Debate page.
  • MIDDLE SCHOOL DEBATE (NATIONAL TOPIC): Practices for our middle school debate season begin in October, and tournaments are held from January through March. Both tournaments and practices are held on weeknights. Learn more about this program at the Middle School Debate page.
  • SPANISH DEBATE LEAGUE: This program is held fully in Spanish. Spanish Debate League is held during the Spring semester. Tournaments happen from March through May, typically on weeknights.  Learn more about this program at the Spanish Debate League page.
  • FINANCIAL LITERACY LEADERSHIP DEBATES: This program is designed for high school students to learn fundamental financial literacy knowledge in an engaging format, with an emphasis on serving girls and gender expansive students. This program is held during Spring Semester. Learn more about this program at the Financial Literacy Leadership Debates page.
  • SUMMER SPEECH & DEBATE CAMP: We’ve got multiple camp offerings for middle and high school students happening on Augsburg University’s campus from June-July every year. Registration begins in January. Learn more about our camp offerings here!

Where does debate happen?

Coaches and students

Coaches accompany students to tournaments in the Twin Cities. Some events are hosted on college campuses, including UMN and Augsburg University! | Photo Credit: Marina Que

Our debate practices are hosted in-school, after school, typically in the classroom of our teacher-coaches.

Tournaments are held at area high schools and middle schools, including those in Minneapolis Public Schools, Saint Paul Public Schools, and suburban locations as far as Wayzata, Shakopee, Lino Lakes, or East. St. Paul. Transportation is fully provided by the MN Urban Debate League.

Most of our programs are centered around the Twin Cities, but we sometimes have special opportunities for additional competitions. If your student competes in national topic policy debate, they’ll be joining debaters across the nation in competing with the same topic. If students qualify to compete at Nationals, they will have the opportunity to travel out-of-state.

Not sure if your school has a debate team? Find our partner schools here.

Why debate?

Capitol Hill Students

Debaters celebrate their hard-earned victory, the culmination of their months of effort. | Photo Credit: Marina Que

We focus on debate because we believe it’s far more than an after school activity. It’s foundational to building the skills students need to succeed in school, college, and the workplace. Our goal is to create a welcoming space where students can feel comfortable interacting with and arguing about academic topics, and build confidence as their skills grow. This positive self-image, along with their transferable skills, empowers debaters to make change in the wider world.

Like any good debater, we like a list of three. Here are three key ways debate can benefit your student.

1) Debate Prepares Students for College

Research shows that debate has an astonishing impact on student achievement. Compared to peers, debaters have higher attendance rates, GPAs, standardized test scores, advanced course placement rates, and graduation rates. Learn more about these outcomes, from both the Twin Cities and other urban debate leagues, here. These outcomes are possible because the skills that debate teaches – like critical thinking, argumentation, and reading complex nonfiction texts are all core to becoming college-ready. Plus, if your student wants to keep pursuing this activity after graduation, they can earn scholarships to continue competing at colleges and universities. You’ll find dozens of scholarships that could become available to your debater at the NSDA website.

Does your family qualify for the Pell Grant? You’ve got a direct line to full tuition at Augsburg University, our partner institution, through the Augsburg Promise Scholarship. Learn more about the opportunity here.

2) Debate Helps Students Develop Socially & Emotionally

Although debate is an intellectual activity, it’s also interpersonal. Debate provides an opportunity for students to grow socially and emotionally. Students build friendship and cooperation with their partners and teammates at each practice and tournament. They’re led by caring teacher-coaches, community coaches, and volunteers who prioritize education over competition. Our coaching curriculum is built around concepts like growth mindset, using feedback, goal-setting, and building positive relationships. We’re not just trying to shape great debaters, but great people through debate. This is a wonderful opportunity for students who haven’t spent time in sports to gain all the benefits of being on a competitive team: camaraderie, building resilience through losses, and sharing a sense of accomplishment during victories! Check out our YouTube channel to find testimonials from coaches and students who share how they’ve grown through debate.

3) Debate Provides Opportunities for Leadership

What do Kofi Annan, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, and Lisa Ling have in common? They’re all former debaters – like the thousands of other alums who have gone on to lead in their fields. When your student joins debate, they’ll be part of an unmatched alumni network of leaders in many different communities. Find just a few of these powerful alums here! Leaders are made here because the process of learning how to debate cultivates the qualities our future leaders need most. Critical thinking, argumentation, information literacy, and public speaking are crucial as we face the future.

Plus, your student will get the chance to lead on their team in captain roles. Or, they could join the MNUDL’s Student Design Team and help influence our programming. Stand-out debaters with an interest in helping the next generation can also become paid assistant coaches for middle school debate programs!

Our alums take the skills learned in debate and apply them to real-world endeavors, whether pursuing successful STEM careers (Zachary WareJoncas) starting their own nonprofit (Emi Gacaj) or pursuing higher education fully funded by scholarships (Maribel Ayala). You’ll find their stories and more at the MNUDL blog.

We hope to meet your student and hear their story next!

Are you inspired to start a new team at your school? Check out our Start a Team page for more information!