Prescription for the economy: Roanoke students-turned-economists put knowledge to the test

Roanoke's Fed Challenge team: (from left to right) Graham Quadland, Nomin Baasandavaa, Dustin DeMaria, Nathan Castellano, Sara Caudle, Michelle Alexander Crook (the coach), Marko Krkeljas

Roanoke's Fed Challenge team: (from left to right) Graham Quadland, Nomin Baasandavaa, Dustin DeMaria, Nathan Castellano, Sara Caudle, Michelle Alexander Crook (the coach), Marko Krkeljas

Each fall, a group of Roanoke College students become pseudo-economists with a mission - improve the U.S. economy.

For the past five years, a hand-selected group of Roanoke seniors enroll in a unique economics course, the Fed Challenge. In this program, students play U.S. economists by researching and creating a prescription to fix the economy. In November, the students present their solution to a panel of judges in a district competition at the Federal Reserve Bank in Richmond, Va.

The fall 2011 team was two points shy of advancing to the second round of the competition, but they tied the highest score of any team in Roanoke College's history.

Roanoke's team competed against such prestigious schools as the University of Richmond, the University of Virginia, James Madison University, and Virginia Tech.

The students have a mere 20 minutes to present a well-researched summary of the current economic situation. They also propose actions that the Federal Reserve Bank should take to help improve the economy. For 10 minutes following the presentation, three judges, who are actual economists, ask standard questions as well as some that are specific to the students' presentation.

The U.S. economy continues to tailspin, as job growth remains slow and Americans continue to cut back on spending. The Roanoke team suggested that the Federal Reserve Bank raise interest rates, while taking off the table the possibility of purchasing a third round of bonds.

"As the whole world economy is slow we believed that making the United States dollar a safe haven would make the U.S. a safe market and hopefully spur the economy," said Graham Quadland, one of six students on the 2011 team.

Quadland, a political science major at Roanoke with a global business concentration, explained that his team had to combine both politics and economics to come up with a solution.

"It is a sort of political chess," he said.

Each year the students arrive at considerably different solutions because the U.S. economic situation is ever changing. The team's coach, Michelle Alexander Crook, keeps up with constant economic fluctuations.

Crook, who is the CFO of Bank of Botetourt and a Roanoke College graduate, introduced the Fed Challenge program to the college when she began working at Roanoke as an adjunct economics professor.

"There is not a lot in the field of economics that gives students experimental learning, so this is an opportunity that gives students the chance to apply their academic, textbook learning, to a real life situation," said Crook, who the Roanoke students call "Coach Crook".

However, students must be recommended by economics professors to sign up for Crook's course and participate in the Fed Challenge competition.

"These students are the cream of the crop," she said.

To prepare for this year's competition, the students divided into four categories-consumer confidence, housing and gross domestic product, unemployment and labor, and international issues.

These students are responsible for completing large amounts of independent research, including constantly staying up-to-date on current events happening in the economy. They meet once a week to discuss their findings.

"Our current economy is all over the place, so it is very interesting to learn about," said Sara Caudle, another student on the 2011 team. "That is where the intellectual aspect comes in because you have to think about what you have learned in your previous economics classes.  You then look at what is happening in the outside world, and then make your own prediction."

Caudle also commented on the high caliber of her teammates. She explained that each student brought something different and that everyone on the team continually challenged each other.

Quadland said the Fed Challenge course and competition gave him a valuable inside look at real-world economics and U.S. policy. This was particularly beneficial for Quadland because he wants to work in politics in New York after graduation.

"One of the things you don't get from many college classes is practical, real life experience," said Quadland, who has interned at a Wall Street firm. "In this class, you learn about the instruments of financial policy and how to use them. Then you actually go to one of the places where they are used, and you get to demonstrate your knowledge."

Caudle, who would like to work in the field of business and economics when she graduates from Roanoke, said the Fed Challenge course helped prepare her for her future career.

"I don't think you could have walked away from that experience without gaining something," she said. "I feel like I could leave right now and be ready for the real world, and that is the biggest strength of Roanoke College."

Released: January 10, 2012