Students, beating teams from Dartmouth and Princeton, demonstrate grasp of economics that propel them to top of national competition

From left, Jeffrey Rubin, Ali Haider Ismail, Andrew Lee, Federal Reserve Board Chair Janet Yellen, Shivram Viswanathan, Karn Dalal and Ashton W. Welles.
Photo: Federal Reserve Bank

Students from Rutgers University-New Brunswick won the College Fed Challenge in Washington, D.C. last week, defeating several elite universities and demonstrating a grasp of economics that propelled them to the top of this tough national competition.

The Dec. 1 finals took place in the boardroom of the Federal Reserve Bank with five Rutgers undergraduates facing teams from Appalachian State University (ASU), Dartmouth College, Princeton University, and the University of Chicago.

“It was an absolutely stunning moment,” said Jeffrey Rubin, an emeritus professor in the Department of Economics, School of Arts and Sciences (SAS), and the team’s adviser since the competition began in 2003. “There we were in this very imposing boardroom, where the Fed sets policy, and competing against students from these outstanding schools.”

The College Fed Challenge is a competition that encourages students to learn about the U.S. economy, monetary policymaking, and the role of the Federal Reserve System. Students deliver a 15-minute presentation, analyzing current economic conditions and conclude by making a recommendation on monetary policy. The students then respond to a series of questions from a panel of three top economists at the Federal Reserve System who serve as judges.

The competition models the work of the Federal Open Market Committee, which recommends policy and sets the federal funds rate, Rubin added.

The Rutgers team, four of whom are economics majors in SAS, and one majoring in finance at Rutgers Business School-Newark and New Brunswick, had been preparing since September, gathering together for at least 15 hours every week.

“We had multiple meetings,” said Ali Haider Ismail, a senior majoring in economics and mathematics. “We started off with Thursday and Sunday meetings, and then we added Tuesdays and Mondays, and online meetings.”

After defeating Columbia University, among other schools, during the New York Federal Reserve District regional competition in October, the team advanced to the finals feeling relaxed and confident.

But in the boardroom, as the results were announced, the students and Rubin found themselves in a state of disbelief.

The judges called the honorable mentions first – ASU, Princeton, and Chicago.

“I remember taking a deep breath after the three honorable mentions, and thinking I’d still be happy to get second place,” said Karn Dalal a junior majoring in economics and biomathematics.  “Then we hear that second place goes to Dartmouth. That took a moment to register. And then you get that rush in your head and it’s like: ‘Yes! We did it.’”

His teammates had similar reactions.

Sophomore Ashton W. Welles, majoring in economics and computer science, said: “I was thinking: “Oh my goodness, this is crazy.”

Andrew Lee a senior majoring in finance, with minors in economics and political science, said the team benefited from constant practice, crediting the dedication of Rubin, and faculty members in the economics department that included Christine Cumming and Todd Keister, both of whom have had experience working at the Fed.

“We drilled a lot on the questions and answers,” Lee said. “They would ask us questions far out of left field.”

Shivram Viswanathan, a junior majoring in economics and mathematics, agreed. He said the other teams’ presentations at the finals were very impressive, and included ambitious and sometimes esoteric references that demonstrated considerable knowledge of macroeconomics.

“But I think what ultimately allowed us to get the edge is our ability to make our presentation in a comfortable, cohesive, and cogent manner,” he said. “We’d tie in a lot of different aspects of the global and domestic economy all at once, working disparate ideas into a single, clear concept.”

Back in New Brunswick, the team was honored with cake and congratulations earlier this week inside New Jersey Hall, home of the economics department.

“This is a moment worth celebrating,” said department Chair Tom Prusa. “You have made Rutgers history.”