(Bloomberg) -- For two fleeting minutes this February, as Bitcoin began its surge to $60,000, 21-year-old Alan George and his investing friends flirted with the idea of buying some.
But he and the rest of the Yale Student Investment Group, a fund overseeing more than $500,000 in assets, just couldn’t do it.
“The very fast decision was: ‘We don’t know what’s going on here, let’s stay out of it,’” said George, president of the independent fund founded in 1982 that counts Citadel as its official sponsor and cites AQR Capital Management and Susquehanna International Group as among the recent landing spots of its members.
For longtime denizens of Wall Street, it’s perhaps of some relief that Gen Z Ivy Leaguers are as puzzled by the past 18 months in financial markets as they are. From meme stocks to non-fungible tokens to special purpose acquisition companies, investing has morphed into something far beyond stocks and bonds. Whether young or old, the tension is the same: the fear of missing out on the hottest new thing, while not wanting to get burned playing along.
Yet for all the focus on the retail-trader uprising, the next generation of investors probably isn’t the average 31-year-old with a Robinhood Markets Inc. account. Instead, they’re more likely to come from the hundreds of college investment funds across the U.S. that give students the chance to manage serious money -- sometimes tens of millions of dollars -- and get a taste of the risks associated with the “you-only-live-once” mentality.
“The opportunity for 18- to 22-year-olds to deploy real capital without personal risk is a pretty unique experience,” said Ronak Rijhwani, 21, a rising senior at the University of Virginia and co-president of the school’s McIntire Investment Institute. He has had internships at private-equity firm Alpine Investors and Steve Cohen’s Point72 Asset Management, according to the fund’s website.
“It forces us to conduct due diligence and adopt strict best practices that we probably wouldn’t if we were paper trading or investing small amounts of money from our personal accounts,” Rijhwani said in a telephone interview.
The McIntire fund, founded in 1994 with an endowment from Blue Ridge Capital’s John Griffin, won first place in the undergraduate growth portfolio category at the Quinnipiac Global Asset Management Education Forum. It’s a yearly conference that invites more than 1,700 student investors from some 160 schools to network, attend panels and compete in the forum’s Global Portfolio Challenge, which ranks funds based on risk-adjusted returns.
Since 2019, Osman Kilic, a finance professor at Quinnipiac University, has helped identify the best funds. As executive director of the forum, he has overseen a shift in the topics covered at panels, bringing financial technology and crypto into the mix.
Still, the 56-year-old professor said he’s anxious about the direction markets are heading. Inexperienced investors, and especially young men, are the prime audience for financial froth and risk-taking, he said.
“It used to be penny stocks, now it’s penny cryptos -- it’s gambling,” Kilic said. To him, the forum is meant to help students learn about the latest trends in finance while keeping them focused on fundamentals and taking prudent risks with real money.
The college funds are also a way for students considering a Wall Street career to declare their interest in asset management.
Harvard University’s Black Diamond Capital Investors, a club independent of school influence, was started with the goal of congregating its “most talented, brightest” student investors, and building up an alumni network of “rock stars,” said Christian Carbone, 27, an alumnus and founding member of the group. When it was first formed in 2012, students had to invest at least $1,000 of their own capital (that’s no longer a requirement). Today, the group has upwards of $250,000 in assets.
Black Diamond members have gone on to work at some of the toniest firms in finance, from Ray Dalio’s Bridgewater Associates to Blackstone Group Inc., Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and JPMorgan Chase & Co., according to co-presidents Justin Xie and Karthik Yegnesh.
Other funds are bigger: The University of Dayton, for one, puts almost $60 million in students’ hands through a program that’s part of the endowment, which started with $1 million in 1999. And many have more guardrails, operating through classes with professors offering guidance.
“At the beginning of this year, the students were hearing about the meme stocks, joining Robinhood for the first time, making a lot of trades on their own for the first time, and wondering ‘why can’t we do this in the portfolio?’” said Brandy Hadley, assistant finance professor and faculty adviser to the Bowden Investment Group at Appalachian State University. “That was a good opportunity to discuss, and to talk about the value of the research.”
Some professors leverage their background on Wall Street. Michael Ice, a senior lecturer at the University of Rhode Island, spent more than three decades in finance, including as global head of fixed income and derivatives at Rabobank in the late 1990s. He’s the faculty adviser to the $844,000 Ram Fund, which beat its benchmark, the Vanguard Extended Market Index, by 22 percentage points this year and won first place for core portfolios at the GAME forum.
Over at Yale, around the same time the student-run fund eschewed a Bitcoin investment, the group brought in a speaker to explain short squeezes and options trading after shares of GameStop Corp. and other meme stocks rocketed higher.
While the potential investors of tomorrow may not opt to ride the retail wave themselves, they want to know what’s driving price swings nonetheless.
“We’ve gotten exposure to how markets react to certain themes that sometimes seem related and sometimes don’t,” George, the Yale fund president, said. “I really don’t think there could be a better time to learn.”