Warhawks rival elite schools in national College Fed Challenge

December 08, 2017

Written by Dana Krems 

For the first time ever, the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater won the regional College Fed Challenge held in Chicago, and advanced to the national event in Washington, D.C. to compete with Harvard University, Princeton University, Pace University and Virginia Commonwealth University. Since the competition began in 2004, UW-Whitewater is the first Wisconsin university to advance to the national level.

The College Fed Challenge is an educational competition that teaches participants to think critically about the U.S. economy and monetary policy. It also helps them develop skills that are valuable in both their academic and professional careers, such as the ability to think analytically, make effective presentations, work as a team and respond under pressure. Teams are scored based on a 15-minute presentation and a 15-minute question-and-answer session with judges.

Of the Federal Reserve's 12 districts, five hold regional competitions. This year the top economics programs across the Midwest gathered at the Chicago Federal Reserve Bank on November 13, 2017 to compete in the District 7 challenge. Historically, Northwestern University has dominated the competition, capturing ten regional wins and four national wins in 14 years.

When the judges announced UW-Whitewater was victorious over the perennial champion, the students and coaches were ecstatic

"I didn't take off my medal for a few days," Ronald Tittle confides. "People were asking to see it, so I kept it on."

"The first ten minutes after we won were surreal," shares Alejandro Esquivel, who participated in the challenge for the first time this year. "Then we started to talk about the national competition. We knew the next three weeks would be intense."

He elaborates, "The regional competition was Monday. We took Tuesday off and then hit the ground running with three-hour practices seven days a week. We felt confident with our presentation script, so we focused on the Q and A portion."

"The students must be informed of economic conditions right up to the day of the competition," Ahmad adds. "They use indicators like consumer confidence, inflation, unemployment and gross domestic product to determine how different sectors are performing and how the Federal Reserve might react."

The team was also creating its own forecasts to compare and contrast with the Federal Reserve's.

Team captain Taylor Griffith explains, "We used vector autoregression models to analyze past data and forecast forward."

On December 1, the day of the national competition, the team arrived at the Marriner S. Eccles Federal Reserve Board Building in Washington, D.C. early in the morning. They entered the two-story Board Room and met Janet Yellen, the Federal Reserve Chair.

"The room is massive," Tittle relates. "It was so impressive to be in the room where the Federal Open Market Committee meets and monetary policy is set."

Ahmad adds, "One of my favorite moments was walking into the Board Room and seeing the students' eyes light up. With Janet Yellen stepping down as Chair at the end of January, it was also an honor to meet her."

The UW-Whitewater students were fourth to present at the national competition, and the first three teams were able to observe their performance.

"Our team did really well. Their presentation was excellent," Ahmad shares.

He continues, "The question-and-answer session was much more difficult than at the regional competition. The first question, in particular, was tricky. There really was no right answer, and the subject was something the Federal Reserve is obviously thinking about at this time."

Esquivel explains, "When the judges asked their first question at the national challenge, I looked at my teammates and realized none of us were sure how to answer. That hadn't happened before. We were confident with every question we answered in Chicago, and could focus on how to communicate the answer."

At the conclusion of the competition, the judges announced Pace University and Harvard University as the first- and second-place winners. UW-Whitewater finished on par with Princeton University and Virginia Commonwealth University.

"This was a really good learning experience," Ahmad relates. "Everyone did really well. Their teamwork was strong, they thought critically and responded well under pressure."

He adds, "The fact that our students were able to compete against some of the top economics programs in the country was an honor. It speaks very highly of the strength of our program and the quality of our students."

Understanding the value of applied learning opportunities, the UW-Whitewater Undergraduate Research Program and the College of Business and Economics had assisted the team with travel costs for the regional and national competitions.

"It's a great way for students to learn," Ahmad explains. "They can learn a certain amount in the classroom, but with applied learning opportunities like competition or undergraduate research, they can dig deeper and master topics. This competition, in particular, develops strong critical thinking, research, analytical and communication skills."

Tittle agrees, saying, "The three years I competed in the challenge allowed me to develop an expert focus in macroeconomics and monetary policy, and helped me learn how to apply what I learned in the real world."

The 2017 UW-Whitewater College Fed Challenge Team student presenters included Mark Ellis, Alejandro Esquivel, Taylor Griffith, Ronald Tittle and Alexandre Vieira. Non-presenting team members, who helped with research and preparation, included Casey Russell, Alujjage Pasan Samaranayake and Sean Spangard.

Credit goes beyond a group of exceptional students, however. Economics faculty members Professor Yamin Ahmad, Associate Professor Eylem Ersal, Associate Professor Nick Guo and Professor Emeritus Stuart Glosser devoted many hours as team coaches.

"We also have received an overwhelming amount of support from UW-Whitewater alumni," team Griffith adds. "Past captains and team members were generous with advice, and helped us with practice sessions."

With three presenting members of the team graduating in 2017-2018, the team will have to rebuild next year. Ahmad hopes that the team's success will inspire other economics students to get involved early.

Esquivel looks forward to next year's competition, saying, "I'm grateful and amazed at what we can accomplish, and look forward to continuing this tradition."

He concludes, "The economics program at the College of Business and Economics is second to none in Wisconsin. No other Wisconsin university, including UW-Madison, can boast that they've made it to the College Fed Challenge in Washington, D.C."