Kennedy School Students Named Winners of Social Security Policy Challenge

HKS New Campus
The Harvard Kennedy School.

A team of six Harvard Kennedy School students won a “hackathon-style” Social Security policy challenge hosted by former Senator Heidi K. Heitkamp (D-ND) and Gary D. Cohn, former director of the National Economic Council for the Trump Administration, at the Institute of Politics Monday evening.

As members of “Team Renaissance,” Abdul-Hakeem A. Buhari, Lucien A. Charland, Roy S. Liu, Anthony G. Pascua, Jeremy L. Strickland, and Jinghao Yan presented policy solutions to address long-term financing shortfalls that the United States Social Security Administration faces.

The competition, entitled “Road to 2092: Save Social Security,” was a capstone of “The Real State of the Union,” a weekly discussion about the state of the economy co-hosted by Heitkamp and Cohn. Team Renaissance will travel to Washington, D.C. alongside Heitkamp and Cohn to present their proposal to members of Congress and officials in the Trump administration. The six students will also appear on MSNBC to discuss their plan.

Social Security trust funds are expected to continue depleting cash reserves over the next several years. Heitkamp wrote in a press release that children born today “will rely on Social Security for retirement in 2092.”


Winners were announced after five finalist groups presented their ideas at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum. The competition prompt was released Saturday at noon and teams had until Sunday at 5 p.m. to devise their solutions.

Senator Angus King (I-Maine) judged the final entries alongside Cohn and Heitkamp. Cohn told the crowd at the IOP that he and the other judges were seeking “politically feasible” and “mathematically sound” entries that took a creative approach to the problem.

“We didn’t want people to just come in and move the levers on things that we knew were the obvious levers,” Cohn said.

Institute of Politics Director Mark D. Gearan ’78 said at Monday's announcement event that addressing concerns about Social Security is critical for policymakers.

“This is a nettlesome, thorny issue that’s vexed policymakers for decades,” Gearan said. “This is very real.”

Heitkamp said in an interview after the event that she and Cohn wanted to address Social Security insolvency because the issue is particularly urgent for young voters.

“One of the things that we’ve tried to do here is to explore intergenerational transfer of obligation and responsibility,” she said. “We want to make people aware that these are really important pocketbook issues for you now.”

Liu, who delivered the majority of his team’s final pitch, agreed that Social Security reform is a “really pressing problem” for young voters.

“It was really good to get young people involved, because these are the people that are going to suffer the most when funding becomes insolvent,” Liu said in an interview after the event.

In total, more than 250 students from 28 universities across the country participated in the competition. J. Miguel Undurraga ’19, who worked as a liaison for Cohn this semester and helped organize the policy challenge, said a nationwide solicitation of ideas was a key goal.

“Social Security is one of the toughest structural problems that our country is facing, and so we thought it best to solicit ideas from across the country,” he said. “This was about creating a groundswell of collaborative working here at Harvard.”

— Staff writer Jania J. Tumey can be reached at