[eDebate] Graduate Student eligibility

Newnam, William E wnewnam
Fri May 8 13:49:59 CDT 2009

Dear Community,

I have been following this particular threat with some interest and I think that it is an important issue that should not be taken lightly as it represents a sea-change in thinking about debate opportunity and eligibility.  I have several general comments to make and at the end of this post, I discuss some problems with the amendment as written compared with the various ways that it is being interpreted.

First, do not conflate fifth year eligibility with graduate student competition.  The fifth year eligibility amendment is a very different component.  The purpose of that amendment was to bring eligibility standards into line with the reality of the contemporary collegiate experience.  As several folks have pointed out, the majority of college students now graduate in five years instead of four years.  Many factors inform this reality, but the bottom line is that our eligibility standards should probably embrace the academic experience rather that defy it.  For many students, especially those at smaller state institutions, it is nearly impossible to graduate in four years-the requirements do not match up with course availability.  This will only worsen as state schools continue to take a hit by belt-tightening legislatures who continue to cut funds to such schools.  As such, that amendment, which is already in effect, recognizes that and was hashed out as a compromise because students can attend nationals for only four years but a fifth year of debate does not cut against their nationals eligibility.  THIS IS VERY DIFFERENT THAN GRADUATE STUDENT ELIGIBILITY, but it is important to how that resolution plays out.

Second,  some students are able to complete college in less than four years and start graduate school.  This is, of course, the exception not the rule.  It usually requires accepted AP credits, rigorous commitment, summer school, and course availability, among other things generally not accessible to most college students.

Third, since this rule is written for a narrow exception, it seems as though we should be careful in crafting a broad piece of legislation that sweeps other circumstances into it.  And this amendment is clearly broader than what Gordon Stables indicates it is intended to do.  There is further discussion of that item below.

Fourth,  while I oppose the amendment, if it were to pass along the lines it is written, I believe the anti-poaching provision also needs to be re-examined as I discuss below as well.

Now lets look at the wording problems:

"National CEDA Tournament contestants are to be officially enrolled students in good standing at the college or university they represent in competition. All CEDA tournament contestants must be undergraduate students, unless they have already received their undergraduate degree, are officially enrolled in a graduate program at the same institution, and have competed in four or less years of intercollegiate debate."

The last clause clearly states, "and HAVE competed in FOUR or less years of intercollegiate debate."

The grammar and meaning of this statement is quite clear and unequivocal:   students that HAVE had four years of debate are eligible to compete as graduate students!  This is not even ambiguous.  If you "have" competed for four years, you can continue as a graduate student as long as you remain at your original undergraduate institution.   Until Gordon's post, everyone (supporters and opponents alike) interpreted it as such.  All posts have (notice that use of "have") clearly interpreted this proposal to mean exactly that a student retains the benefit of a fifth year of eligibility.

I recognize that for many, the opportunity to debate is limited to their college years because they lacked access to strong programs or any programs at all.  And I have a great deal of respect for those who commit themselves to debate and continue to debate despite the high entry barriers that exist.  But I feel that this is such a major change, to allow graduate students to compete against undergraduates, while being judged by graduates (and sometimes undergraduates as well) that it should not be assumed to be non-controversial.  I believe this merits much more discussion than a couple of months of edebate commentary and should be more thoroughly vetted.

Gordon's intent seems quite at odds with the interpretation and that reason, if nothing else, should prompt some to reconsider the situation.  While I recognize the fallacy of slippery slope, there are several odd scenarios that should be considered.

There is no consecutive eligibility restraint which means that someone could conceivably finish undergraduate work, go on to work toward an advanced degree (or more than one) and in the third or fourth year of a Ph.D. program, or while taking only thesis hours, or while coasting through year three of law school have a eureka moment:  I have another year of eligibility! I think I will debate now.  At this point you have substantially altered the population of the active debate community.

Or, someone begins their graduate career as an assistant coach.  Decides, what the heck after two or three years of coaching, I know a heck-of-a-lot more about debate now than I did when I debated.  I will put that knowledge to use now. I will go back and debate again.  Almost everyone I know who coaches debate realizes that they would have been a much better debater after coaching than before coaching.  Surely someone will put that to use.

I recognize that some individuals choose, for various reasons, to finish their degrees early but I don't think that justifies such a broad eligibility change for several reasons:

            Ending your undergraduate career means that you forego all kinds of experiences unique to undergraduates.  Debate is no different.

            Many schools, especially where those covered by the example of early graduation covered by Gordon might apply, also have joint MA/BA programs that undergraduates can take advantage of if they truly want to begin their graduate program early.

            There are very few students that this rule (under Gordon's interpretation) applies to and this can be accommodated with appeals without passing such a broad based rule.

Finally, I believe that if this rule were to pass under the rationale that graduate students should be eligible because they lacked opportunity in college the idea that there is an "anti-poaching" rule is very much at odds with the goal of arguing that students should not be discouraged from pursuing their graduate education to remain eligible to debate.   Diversity of the educational experience is good.  Students choose and many are encouraged to pursue graduate degrees at other schools.  Tethering a graduate student to their undergraduate program seems an artificial constraint that is not justified if the idea is that graduate students should have a right to debate because their undergraduate experience was incomplete.  They should be encouraged to pursue the best graduate program for their education, while maintaining their debate eligibility.  If the argument is that this amendment is best for the educational experience, the  "anti-poaching" clause seems a disingenuous and unnecessary addition.  I remain opposed to the rule, but if it is passed, it seems unreasonable to constrain rather than restrict graduate education choices.

A couple of possible alternatives:

First, the rule must be re-crafted if the idea is to limit this to those graduating a little early, as Gordon indicates, because it has no such limitation now.

Second, the rule as written allows students to pursue the post-graduate eligibility at any time in their postgraduate career as long as they are enrolled in graduate classes which opens it up to a far larger range of eligibility options that also needs to be re-crafted.

Third, maintain the status quo and make exceptions (as limited a population as exists that the idea behind the amendment affects) on a case-by-case appeals basis.  The appeals create precedential opportunities for others without creating an overly broad rule.

Fourth, if those who want a fifth year rule for graduate students do win the day, they should consider eliminating the anti-poaching component since it restricts a graduate student education rather than expands it.

Fifth, at a minimum, there is a strong case to be made that this rule needs serious discussion and reconsideration before it is passed.  It creates a massive change in the eligibility structures despite the intent to keep it narrow and should be evaluated more accurately to determine:  a. what the purpose of the change is, b. if the purpose matches the proposed change, c. how to craft a more narrow construction to avoid overly broad increases in eligibility.

Guess conditionality ain't so bad afterall.

I encourage all voters to reject the amendment as written.


Bill n


There has been a great deal of confusion and rancor on this subject. Let me first clarify that this amendment only seeks to add a means for students who have started competing to continue competing through their 4th year if they have begun a graduate program at their institution.

It is already current practice that students are allowed to compete for up 5 years. The recent discussion has highlighted that there are diverse opinions on this subject. This measure does not offer a means of addressing that dispute. I would encourage each side to reflect on the competing issues (i.e., the challenges of completing a degree in 4 years at many schools alongside the concern about incentivizing students to stay in school longer) and try to begin getting us as a community toward some common ideas.

What this measure does do, however, is make it possible for students who are making progress toward their degree to have an incentive to graduate early. The NCAA currently allows a student to finish their BA or BS and then start work on an MA if they have eligibility remaining. This rule would match that NCAA effort with one important restriction. It is not designed to allow a student to graduate and debate in their 5th year. This is only a provision for students who would earn a BA or BA in less than four and then want to continue to start working on an MA or PhD at their current institution. This incentivizes students to compete and make academic progress in four years. This is a system that our athletes can use, but not our debaters.

To frame it clearly today a 5th year student earning their BA can debate, but a student who earns the degree in 3 1/2 years cannot attend the NDT or CEDA in their 4th year. Regardless of your views on 5th year eligibility, it is not good policy or equitable to create disincentives for students to make academic progress. Again, a student cannot debate as a grad student in year 5.

I hope these items help clarify some of the rationales for these measures. Please leave your comments or email me at stables at usc.edu if you have questions.

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