Thought Bubble: The Costs of Camp Culture

For debaters who have competed for the past nine months, July is the time to relax and finally do something besides prep. In my case, it means binge-watching twenty to thirty seasons of different reality television shows, but to each their own. Still, a select few debaters decide to lengthen their season with a preseason training: an elite debate camp. Over the past few years, scores of elite, perfectly packaged, and well resourced camps have become the monopolizers of circuit success. These institutes are staffed by the nation’s highest ranked debaters, coach the nation’s highest performing competitors, and have the nation’s most expensive tuitions. Still, while these camps are eager to feature their competitive advantage, they are equally enthusiastic to ignore the social stratification that these camps create. 

At a price tag of around $2,500, students receive 40-50 hours of group and individual instruction. Subtracting the time wasted, the socialization time, and special events, students are paying more per hour at camp than they would in a one-on-one private lesson. When students attend debate camps in 2018, they’re going less for content and more for connections. In debate, students can create valuable prep circles and relationships with coaches that’ll serve as their judges later on in the season. In speech, students build friend groups that will watch their speeches, put in a good word to their own coach, and help them find material to add into their pieces during the season. Obviously, for those paying, this is a rightful prize. Camp is an investment that has its returns, but in an academic event, where students should be judged by their academic and performative ability, some are boxed out of winning because they cannot make the initial investment. 

In three years, my parents had the financial ability to send me to one camp: the NSDA’s Online Extemp Institute. In five days, I was afforded twenty five hours of instruction for less than $10 an hour. This opportunity gave me the chance to interact with some of the most distinguished extemporaneous speaking alumni in the United States, learn the “tricks of the national circuit,” and become a more established name in the event I competed regularly in. We did not have a glamorous lecture hall, a spotless social media page, or a staff that had won every national championship in recent history, but we had enough to become far better speakers. Our small family in the NSDA online institute went on to have some success on the circuit all because the opportunity had been created for an affordable camp. 

Perhaps the most heartbreaking article that I read this year was “Why We Aren’t Having a Camp This Year” from the founder of the ASDF. This Florida camp, one of the only affordable yet resourced options for students, could not afford operational costs without raising prices unsustainably. Camps are absolutely expensive to run, but as options like ASDF are forced to shutter their doors, it’s the responsibility of larger camps to create even more scholarships or work with large school programs to scholarship students. Camps with online sections are paving the way for a more inclusive learning experience, and private coaches are starting to diminish the gap between camp and non-camp students. Ultimately, there’s a certain fear of missing out that always comes during camp season, but don’t lose hope at the sparkling pictures. There are affordable options to become a great speaker or debater, and we can only work to create more.