A program for talented yet disadvantaged students instills “a sense of belonging” and helps them “feel trusted and included.”

Getting into university in Hungary is hard, just as in other countries. And, as in other countries, access to higher education is even more limited for poorer students. Many miss out on proper primary and secondary education, and those who do compile strong academic records often find themselves unable to afford to live in the bigger cities.

Ten years ago, a group of students at Corvinus University of Budapest decided they could help disadvantaged high schoolers prepare for and integrate into life at the prestigious institution. Joined by alumni and other backers, the students set up a program of peer-to-peer mentoring combined with financial help, naming it after Kalman Szabo, a prominent former Corvinus rector who himself came from a poor background. 

“It would be interesting and great if we manage to achieve results in relation to the [social] mobility issue. It could be a dominant ambition for our community in the coming years,” wrote Sandor Revesz, one of the program’s founders, in a 2012 email to other members of Rajk College for Advanced Studies, one of several colleges within Corvinus University.

Rajk College students voted on the proposal to start a mentoring and aid program for disadvantaged students.

“It was a sunny day, and the student assembly was outside in a park. After a short debate we voted, and nearly all the hands were raised in favor of starting the program,” Revesz recalls. “I realized it could be something that could draw interest from a wider audience.”

The program, known by the acronym SzKTP, seeks out gifted high school students from low-income families and offers them free tutoring and orientation to help with their application to Corvinus. Those who are accepted into the university can take advantage of mentoring and an unrestricted stipend to help manage the challenges, including financial, for first-year students.

At orientation sessions like this one, Kalman Szabo program awardees might learn about searching for cheap accommodation in Budapest and other tips and tricks of university life.

“I had a huge disagreement with my parents over how we should pay for university,” says Mark Csonka, a former beneficiary of the program. 

“They forbade me to take out a student loan. I needed to work. I worked picking fruit; I worked packing sparkling water and other gigs. The [SzKTP] program helped me to feel trusted and included by a group of peers, and the stipend they offered me helped me feel secure.” 

Csonka recalls learning about the program from fliers handed out to his high school class. When a classmate remarked that the program was for poor kids, not for him, “I silently told myself, ‘It might be for me then,” he says.

He graduated in 2020 with a master’s degree and currently works as a consultant and project manager in Budapest. Such a career, however, would not otherwise have been possible for him since his family could not afford the costs related to his studies. 

A Sense of Belonging

What sets SzKTP apart is that students run the program. They organize peer-to-peer mentoring and hold weekend retreats and parties where the program participants get to know each other. These social gatherings and mentoring activities begin before students apply for admission and continue throughout a student’s time at Corvinus.

“It’s great to know that there is someone in the same situation as you are and someone who is there for you when you are going to a new city where you didn’t know anyone before,” Csonka says.

“When I was selected for the program, there was an immediate sense of belonging,” says Vivien Balogh, another student in the Kalman Szabo program.

She was born near the Romanian border, and her parents supported her plan to attend a university, but they could not afford Budapest. Still, she wanted to attend a top school and set her sights on the capital. 

Assistance with her university application and financial aid from SzKTP were essential for her plans to work out, Balogh says, starting with a summer camp for prospective Corvinus students.

“At SzKTP, I found myself in an environment where I could talk about the hardships of pursuing my education, being not so rich,” she says.

Balogh went on to earn a master’s in accounting. She now works as an assistant auditor at Big Four accounting firm EY.

Solidarity among those selected for the program is key to its success, says Szilvia Szenasi, director of the Uccu Roma Informal Educational Foundation, which supports young Roma students and works to improve public perceptions of educated Roma. In 2019, she served as an independent, external member on the program admissions committee.

Young adults from disadvantaged backgrounds, particularly when they are the first in their family to go to university, lack models for success once they get there, Szenasi says.

In this situation, getting to know peers whose adaptation to university life was smoother is a big help, she continues, saying, “Peer-to-peer relationships are very important, and SzKTP is damn good at this.”

Raduly Kincso, another beneficiary, was in a more difficult situation than most. She is the first student in the program from the ethnic Hungarian minority in Romania, far from Corvinus, her dream university.

A talented student in math and chemistry in high school, Kincso is now enrolled in Corvinus’s applied economics program. She says SzKTP’s assistance back in 2021 was crucial in getting her over the hurdles of coming from a low-income family in a foreign country.

Although many of the 2 million-plus ethnic Hungarians in neighboring countries hold Hungarian citizenship, differing high school curricula complicate the task for students who aim to attend university in Hungary. Kincso’s example offers a glimpse of what focused mentoring before university admission can achieve. 

For her, being accepted into the SzKTP program was only the beginning of the arduous journey to enrolling at Corvinus. It started with a 600-kilometer trip to Budapest for the SzKTP orientation week that was held six months before the February deadline for applications.

Once there, Kincso says,I thought, these guys are really taking the university application seriously, and they want me to succeed.”

Some subjects in the math exam required of applicants were unfamiliar to her, such as probability theory and geometry.

“After being accepted to SzKTP, two university students tutored me in these topics. I had math tutoring once every week and English tutoring twice a week.”

Kincso entered Corvinus in September 2022, and financial aid from SzKTP is now helping her continue her economics studies.

Scouting Talented High Schoolers

A successful university application starts with strong academic performance in high school and possibly one or two language certificates. Young people from less well-off families, though, find the odds stacked against them. An analysis of Hungarian students’ results on the standardized PISA tests – language, math, and science tests given every three years to 15-year-olds in around 80 countries – concluded that family income and other social conditions influence Hungarian youngster’s test scores to a greater degree than in other members of the OECD group of developed countries. Simply put, their family and educational backgrounds make poorer kids less adept at writing a strong university application.  

Aiming to help at least a handful of students escape this trap, SzKTPstaff visit 30 to 50 high schools every year in poorer areas of Hungary and promote the program to kids from low-income families. Aided by social media campaigns, these visits generate around 50 to 70 applications annually. 

Kincso learned about the program on Corvinus’s Instagram account. “It offered a little money and mentoring, so I got excited thinking it was worth a try,” she says.

Corvinus student Daniel Kinalbegan volunteering with SzKTP two years ago and now heads the team of coordinators – students who handle the many tasks such a program necessitates and look after those selected for it, everything from organizing trips to high schools to promoting the program at public events and on social media.

All this might demand anywhere from a couple of hours to one or two days of his week, Daniel says. The pro-bono work is worth it, both for altruistic and personal reasons: “It’s the feeling that I’m a part of something that goes beyond the individual,” he explains.

An additional benefit for him, a Rajk College member, is that contributing to the program comes with recognition and appreciation from other Rajk students. “I also gain important experience [learning] about myself and how to work in a team and lead a team effectively,” he says.

Annually SzKTP helps 10 to 12 pupils in their final year of high school education. Pupils are selected based on their socioeconomic background and partly on their school performance. The selected students are then mentored by SzKTP program volunteers or professional educators. Mentoring – whether one-on-one or in larger groups – helps the selected pupils to refine their university application strategy and improve high school diploma results. 

All this mentoring takes place before the students even submit their university applications. Not only does it boost their chances of winning admission, the program also helps the candidates and their families to clearly see both the benefits and the costs of going to college.  

The candidates are given all sorts of preparation material and are welcome to join a summer camp for those planning to apply, run by Studium Generale, a Corvinus student organization, free of charge. In 2022, all 12 high schoolers in the program won admission to the university. “In the worst year, seven out of 10 made it,” says Dori Harsanyi, a “senior ambassador” for SzKTP.

These are impressive results when compared to the overall acceptance rate at Corvinus of around 10 percent. The university’s management and international studies programs especially make it a magnet for many of Hungary’s brightest students.

Exclusion and Segregation Begin Early

As noted, the Kalman Szabo program helps talented kids who cannot afford to live in Budapest or other big cities and are a little behind their peers in terms of education. However, they are not disadvantaged in other aspects. They are eager to learn, and have supportive families, a roof over their heads, a desk to study at, and a warm home around them. Those who lack such basics usually don’t come close to applying to the program or to any university. 

Agnes Kende, a sociologist from Central European University who researches Roma issues, segregated education, and regional poverty, argues that segregation starts during the first years of primary school and the real social issue won’t be solved by initiatives such as SzKTP, honest and altruistic though they are. 

Kids with worse social backgrounds tend to be overrepresented in underperforming public schools and in classes for less academically gifted pupils, while their peers in different classes and schools are much better off. As a result, says Kende, the broad problem of segregation needs to be handled at the state level. 

The program’s managers are aware of this situation. According to an analysis of potential target groups by Harsanyi and other senior ambassadors, about 1,000 high school seniors – of the nationwide total of some 50,000 – could be eligible for the program every year, far more than the dozen or so it now admits.

While small in scale, the program can, however, make a great difference in the lives of the students it accepts. For pupils like Mark Csonka, who had excellent high school grades, the program’s second phase, which comes after the candidates are accepted to the university, was especially helpful. During the first year of their study, they are entitled to a stipend of the equivalent of 2,000 to 2,500 euros to help defray the costs of living. Students in dorms pay only 80 to 100 euros a month, but the average price of renting a room in a shared flat is around 250–300 euros a month, while a small flat may rent for somewhere between 450 and 600 euros.

Undergraduate tuition at Corvinus ranges from 3,600 to 4,800 euros per year, depending on the course of study, although only around 30 percent of undergraduates, and 10 percent of graduate students, must cover their own tuition costs. Most students are on full scholarships.

Budapest, with the highest cost of living in Hungary, is also the center of the country’s university and research life, home to 21 of the country’s 39 universities. The reality is that many disadvantaged youngsters cannot afford either to commute or live in the capital, even when accepted to a university. 

Raduly Kincso, with a father working as a mason and a mother working at a petrol station, has been living in Budapest since September 2022, and plans to settle down there.

“My parents do support me, but I don’t want to be too much of a burden,” she says. “We agreed that they pay for my rent, and I pay for the rest: utilities, food, and social programs. The stipend is good for a start, and I will look for part-time job opportunities later.” 

The stipend can free the beneficiaries from the burden of taking on jobs in their first year when they integrate into university life, familiarize themselves with Budapest, and pass their first exams. These are usually challenging for every first-year student. Students say that whoever gets through the first year will graduate successfully. 

An SzKTP survey of 46 previous program participants showed that while almost half did not work during their first year, 40 of the 46 needed to work at least occasionally in subsequent years, when they were no longer receiving the stipend.

“The stipend made the difference for me,” Balogh says of her first year at Corvinus, helping pay her rent and commuting costs.

“After the stipend ended I took a simple but professional job. I worked as an assistant for an accountant.” 

Friendly Relations With University Management

“The university appreciates SzKTP and is always open to its initiatives,” says Marton Barta, the director of strategy at Corvinus. According to Barta, Corvinus administrators believe that it has to admit talents regardless of their social background. Last year the university launched its own program for disadvantaged students. 

“The university can do many things to help kids with disadvantaged backgrounds, but SzKTP’s bottom-up, student-led approach can hardly be replicated on the university level,” he says. 

The university recognizes the importance of SzKTP by granting the beneficiaries 40 extra points (out of a maximum of 500) in the admission process. 

Over the past decade, the program has evolved independently of Rajk College, although many student volunteers continue to be drawn from members of the college and its sister institution at Corvinus, the Heller Farkas College of Advanced Financial Studies. Initially, Sandor Revesz says, the president of Rajk College, Attila Chikan, gave it a boost by introducing the student founders to potential donors. However, the university does not provide financial support to the program, so SzKTP raises funds from individuals and businesses. Many donors are alumni of the university or the colleges that run the program, or come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Finding these donors and maintaining an active relationship with them is the job of the senior ambassadors.

“The number of contributors is between 15 and 20 each year. One of our donors sends 13 euros a month. It’s really steady, and we value it a lot. Others have a different approach – one sent 24,200 euros in one transfer. It is our job, the ambassadors, to keep them involved and informed and to renew their donations each year,” Harsanyi says.

The program’s budget was around 40,400 euros last year, and a small reserve is being built up to ensure continuity in years when the donors are less generous.

“One of the main selling points, when we talk with potential donors, is that 80 percent of the total donations are given to the beneficiaries directly as cash stipends. Above that, we pay for teachers who help them with university applications and organize events. Altogether, 93 percent of the donations go to the beneficiaries directly or indirectly,” Harsanyi says.

Where to Go From Here?

From the remaining 7 percent, SzKTP pays for bookkeeping services, admin costs, and marketing. Coordinators and ambassadors work pro-bono. Reaching out to disadvantaged students in poorer regions requires a lot of resources. Keeping marketing expenditures low has drawbacks: many potential applicants may never know that the program exists. 

The high schools that program volunteers visit are selected unsystematically, often based on informal connections to principals or teachers. 

“One of the program’s weaknesses is that only a few know about it,” says Szilvia Szenasi, who herself has more than 10 years of experience in managing NGOs. “My intuition about the people running the program was that they are very clever and great at helping the young people in the program, but they lack a lot of marketing knowledge.” 

Effective marketing and promotion is a widespread problem for volunteer-run, low-budget projects like SzKTP. Its reputation is spreading, though, as shown by rising interest among student associations at other universities, such as ELTE, another of the country’s leading academic institutions. In 2020, a group of ELTE students launched their own Kalman Szabo program for disadvantaged students.

They call it the “franchise model” since the name is the same as the Corvinus program, and the ideas behind mentoring, financial aid, holding events, and raising funds are much the same as well. And as at Corvinus, the program is run by members of an elite college, the Istvan Bibo College for Advanced Studies, made up of law and political science students at the ELTE law school.

An SzKTP coordinator talks to high school students about the program and other opportunities at Corvinus University and the ELTE school of law. 

”Thanks to students from Bibo College, SzKTP is now present at ELTE law school as well. We are working on spreading the model further,” Harsanyi says. The Corvinus program would like its next franchisee to be a provincial university, or a science and technology institution in Budapest.

In the end, the dual draw of an elite education and the attractions of big-city life prove irresistible for many talented young people, including those in the Kalman Szabo cohort.

“I always loved Budapest – it is such a lively city,” Kincso says. “I thought of going to Cluj Napoca [in her native Romania]to study, but it’s different. Now I am here in Budapest, and I’m very happy – except that I often feel homesick when I am here. But when I am home, I feel that I want to be in Budapest again.  

“Anyway, I love both places,” she adds. “If I had to figure this out again, I would do the same thing. I can tell you that!” 

Peter Hobot is a freelance journalist based in Budapest. His areas of interest include reporting on the effects of economic change and data journalism.