Diversity at Denver Law

Urban Debate Works

students with trophies

Urban Debate Reduces Academic Achievement Disparities for Underrepresented Students

There are currently nineteen Urban Debate Leagues in cities across the United States from Boston to Oakland and points in between, including Denver.1 Urban Debate Leagues “prioritize debate tournament competition as the primary pedagogical tool for redressing educational inequalities. There is no denying that (policy debate tournament competition) is a powerful motivating force that draws in novices and pushes advanced debaters to dizzying heights of professional and academic excellence.”2 Gordon Mitchell, Associate Professor of Clinical and Translational Science at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, identifies these skills associated with high school debate competition, all of which relate to academic and professional success: reading and interpreting text, then developing and writing arguments based on them; making and defending verbal claims based on evidence; listening to and reacting to arguments advanced by competitors; peer collaboration and teamwork; and working under the pressure of time.3

Sophisticated empirical research supports the connection between Urban Debate League participation and reducing achievement disparities for underrepresented students. Debaters participating in the Chicago Urban Debate League from 1997 to 2006 “performed better on the ACT, and showed greater gains in cumulative GPA relative to similar students.”4 Subsequent analysis found that “students who participated in the Chicago Debate League were more likely to graduate from high school and less likely to drop out than students who did not participate in debate,” and this association held after the researchers accounted for risk factors—prior achievement, poverty, and special education status—that also predict differences in educational achievement.5 The authors of this study conclude, “These results are consistent with the hypothesis that urban debate programs offer an opportunity to improve school engagement and reduce educational disparities among at-risk adolescents.6 These studies established an empirical link between the critical component—participation in Urban Debate League—and three relevant outcomes—high school graduation, ACT scores and GPA.

The Denver Law/DUDL Partnership is Innovative and Produces Positive Results

In five-plus years of operation by the Denver Urban Debate League (DUDL), hundreds of students from intercity high schools have had the chance to develop their analytic and presentation skills while sparring with their peers over issues and questions that profoundly affect our world. The partnership between Denver Law and DUDL benefits both organizations.

Debaters get meaningful and sustained access to the law school and its assets—students, professors, attorneys, judges and the general academic environment. At the law school, DUDL debaters have listened to speeches by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Southern Poverty Law Center co-founder Morris Dees. They have attended oral arguments heard by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit. Each year the law school hosts a Juniors/Seniors Day. Debaters attend classes as visitors, and they meet and converse with University of Denver admissions officers.

Law students, staff and faculty, by serving as judges for DUDL tournaments and by interacting with debaters in classroom and other settings, play a role in fostering respect for, familiarity with and an understanding of higher education among the debaters. Through participating in DUDL events Denver law students, staff and faculty gain an understanding of challenges and rewards associated with pipeline efforts.

DUDL students express high interest in attaining a college education. This past year, DUDL students have been accepted to the University of Denver and to a number of other institutions—among them, Yale, MIT, Colorado State University, Metro State University, Regis University, Wyoming and Wisconsin. And, five years into our partnership. Last spring, one of our former debaters graduated from the University of Denver (he attended on a debate scholarship) and in the fall of 2014 entered Northwestern University Law School with a scholarship.

two female debaters


1. http://urbandebate.org/Find-A-League
2. Mitchell, Gordon R., Pedagogical possibilities for argumentative agency in academic debate. 35.2 ARGUMENTATION AND ADVOCACY 41+ (1988).
3. Id.
4. Mezuk, Briana, Irina Bondarenko, Suzanne Smith and Erick Tucker, Impact of participating in policy debate program on academic achievement: evidence from the Chicago Urban Debate League. 6 EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH AND REVIEWS 622, 630 (2011).
5. Anderson, Susannah and Briana Mezuk, Participating in a policy debate program and academic achievement among at-risk adolescents in an urban public school district: 1997-2007. 30 JOURNAL OF ADOLESCENCE 1, 9 (2012).
6. Id at 10.

Contact us at: Diversity@law.du.edu
Sturm College of Law
University of Denver
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Denver, CO 80208