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Big School v. Small School Dynamics

Ryan Whalen. Editor in Chief

“Speech-and-debate” is an activity that many are familiar with. From the intense back and forth found in public forum rounds, to the crowd-shaking speeches given by duo performers, the diversity found within this competitive activity makes it more than just a place for winning, but also for developing new friendships, discovering new sights, and most importantly, diving into a community that becomes what many consider their “family”. With every passing day, this family grows, giving a voice and platform to countless aspiring students and programs nationwide.

Yet, with the now 3-year advent of the COVID-19 pandemic which has left lasting scars of widespread inequality and global unrest in its wake, the speech-and-debate community, like many others, have felt the devastating impacts. For those that had just joined the activity, online tournaments were a new and perhaps unfamiliar terrain which fostered great unease and hindrance in projected commitment amongst newcomers to the activity. For those that had participated for years, the digital format truly stripped away many of the unexplainably unique aspects of speech-and-debate that had made the competitions and tournaments worth going to in the first place. For many, there was just something so different about being able to perform, express, and compete on different platforms across the nation while simultaneously developing many new, lasting relationships with others from completely different social contexts through casual chats, hang-outs, and even strategy-discussions following every round and tournament.

Speech-and-debate gave and continues to give many a chance not just to compete and win, but ultimately, to grow. Its vast wealth of opportunities provides participants with a unique space to define who they are, who they’d want to become, and who they want to go through this journey with. Truly, the virus’ decisive deconstruction of this valuable development felt like a losing ballot, except this time, there was no winner.

Needless to say, we need to reflect.

We need to reflect on how the pandemic, despite its swift uncovering of the many systemic flaws and disadvantages experienced by smaller and often under-represented teams, schools, and organizations, has revealed to us that there had always been a great disparity between small and large schools. This rift had been growing, if ever so slowly. And, the pandemic? It was the last push to truly send this imbalance over the edge.

Capturing the Issue

To truly characterize what I mean when I say that small programs have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic and subsequent lack of effective aid from administrations and institutions, let me point to an alarming statistic. According to entry numbers acquired from major national tournaments like Emory, Harvard, and Florida Blue Key, the number of participants in fields like Congressional, LD, and Public Forum debate previous to the pandemic season (2019 – 2020) were actually far less than the year of the initial transition (2020 – 2021). However, this statistic is skewed in the sense that most of the entries to these pools consisted of programs that were traditionally regarded as more affluent like Westlake, American Heritage, and Strake Jesuit. Due to the unexpected advantage of increased accessibility from online tournaments, entry numbers for these main events in the following year increased quite drastically, albeit this time with a much more diverse pool which reflected a growing representation of small school participants.

This would indicate positive growth, especially of smaller programs, right?

Not necessarily. The very next year (or rather, second year of the online era of speech-and-debate), numbers absolutely plummeted. To say that participation by not just small schools but everyone had seen a dip in numbers would be a gross understatement. Tournaments that would once see up to at least 100 competitors had barely reached the half-way mark and the majority of participants, especially from smaller programs, that were able to compete last year experienced great burnout due to the often mundane and repetitive process of online competing which lacked the more unique aspects of in-person speech/debate that had made the activity so enjoyable prior to the pandemic. Furthermore, as competitors moved to more competitive circuits and levels of competition, widespread isolation and increased barriers between competitors’ access helped greatly diminished the educational value of tournaments and the community at large.

While these statistics don’t explicitly mention that big schools have benefitted from this period while small schools have suffered, now should be the period for the community – at-large – to reflect upon these trends and take action, perhaps realization, that even though our speeches and debates may be filled with themes of justice, progress, and demands for change, it is time to take action within our own hands.


The gap between agency and rhetoric must be bridged.

But what are the ways that this could be done? How are individual competitors and teams able to aid in finding solutions to address the massive divide between institutional imbalances?

The answer: they don’t – this journey was never meant to be traversed alone in the first place.

What the pandemic had made clear (or at least, should have) above all was the value of unity while at the same time actively embracing the great diversity and differences found between each community and participant within this broader space. Together, the collective power that is laden as hidden potential within everyone must be mobilized to address the problem at hand, because every delay, whether through indirect or direct means, ends up in complicity within a status quo burgeoning with ignorance surrounding issues that deeply affect everyone, especially those that are already structurally underprivileged in contexts outside of speech-and-debate.


Note: The Beyond Resolved blog reflects the ideas of individual authors and not necessarily of the organization as a whole.

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