St. Lawrence University’s Fed Challenge team earned second place out of 85 colleges and universities in the 17th annual national College Fed Challenge, the Federal Reserve announced on Friday, Nov. 20. St. Lawrence was the only liberal arts college to earn a spot in the final round and team members found themselves more than prepared thanks to the critical thinking skills they acquired in the classroom and the real-world learning opportunities that faculty and alumni help to facilitate beyond it.
The team from St. Lawrence finished ahead of finalists Princeton University, Miami University, Michigan State University, and Virginia Commonwealth University, while Dartmouth College won. The competition encourages students to learn about the U.S. economy, monetary policymaking, and the role of the Federal Reserve System while playing the role of monetary policymakers, analyzing economic conditions, and recommending a course for monetary policy. The teams competed virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic and were evaluated on economic analysis, responses to judges’ questions, teamwork, and presentation.
St. Lawrence’s Fed Challenge presenting team, which competed in the Q&A for the semifinals and finals, included Emily Green ’21, Kai-Sigurd Jensen ’21, Samuel McMillan ’21, Julia Mulhern ’21, and Hunter Rodrick ’21. The entire team included Jeffrey Yaun ’21 (presenting team alternate), as well as Olivia Botting ’21, Max Hagan ’22, Christopher Jeffrey ’21, Max Lautenberg ’21, Ross MacMahon ’21, Bryan McLennan ’22, Anders Newberg ’22, Sam Sapnar ’21, Andrew Terhune ’22, and Zejian Zhou ’21. The team’s advisor is Charles A. Dana Professor of Economics Cynthia Bansak, a former economist at the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System who taught St. Lawrence’s Fed Challenge course for more than a decade.
“This entire group showed immense dedication throughout the competition that led directly to their success,” Bansak said. “From the time they registered for the class last spring, they have been focused on winning the Fed Challenge and spent hundreds of hours working toward that throughout the summer and fall. They Zoomed at all hours and took part in late night and early morning sessions to make sure they were prepared. That focus and commitment took this group above and beyond and ultimately paid off.”
Kai, the team’s leader who also competed on St. Lawrence’s 2019 team, said Bansak and the class would prepare an exhaustive list of every possible question the team could get during the Q&A format of the semifinals.
“Professor Bansak is a truly gifted tutor and mentor, and she has been our guide from the beginning,” Kai explained. “The team would get on to Zoom late at night and spend hours debating each question. Then during class, Professor Bansak would challenge every single answer we had spent the previous night preparing. The level of intensity and rigor she added to our preparation made it so that once we got to the finals, every question we got we knew the answer to, and for every argument against our recommendation, Professor Bansak prepared us to counter in a confident manner.”
While this was the first time a St. Lawrence team competed in the final round of the national challenge, team members felt they had two additional advantages: their liberal arts background and St. Lawrence’s alumni network.
“The pandemic created truly uncharted waters for economic policymakers, the type of situation where the smartest people in the world are forced to get creative and try things that have never been tried before to keep the ship afloat. I think these are exactly the situations that liberal arts students thrive in,” said Sam McMillan. “My liberal arts education has fostered creativity and taught me to be quick on my feet, but has also given me a strong backbone of economic theory and quantitative skills. This combination is exactly what the team needed to critique the Fed’s policy decisions, propose new policies, and defend those proposals.”
Emily shared that alumni also helped the team tremendously, and were more than willing to give their time to provide feedback as often as was needed.
"A huge part of our success was the help we received from St. Lawrence’s alumni network in preparing for the final round," Emily said. "Every class we had different SLU alumni and professors questioning us, providing feedback on our answers, and critiquing our style. It was thanks to the engagement and interest of our alumni that we were able to prepare so well for the final and outperform our competition."
In addition to Bansak, St. Lawrence’s entire economics department helped the team prepare. The team benefited greatly from the expertise of Assistant Professor of Economics Shuwei (Jolly) Zhang, Visiting Assistant Professor of Government Zenel Garcia, and Lynn Smith Fox, a former senior official of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors and spouse of University President William L. Fox ’75.
The 85 schools from across the country that participated in this year’s College Fed Challenge took part in local virtual competitions beginning in October. St. Lawrence was one of three teams from the New York Region selected for the semifinals, where 18 semifinalists participated in Q&A sessions held the week of November 9. St. Lawrence won the New York Region to earn a spot in the national final.