Climbing Higher

A new endowed scholarship from active alumnus Steven Koltai will help community college students continue their education at Tufts.
Steven Koltai

Steven Koltai, A76, F78, E12P, merges his interest in advancing society with a scholarship for community college transfers.

About a year ago Steven Koltai, A76, F78, E12P, asked himself an important question: “What can I do that would be a catalyst for social change?” The question reflected a confluence of events and feelings in his life: a recent move to Boston, a thought-provoking fellowship at Harvard’s Advanced Leadership Initiative that included a segment on education reform and income inequality, and a desire to support his alma mater with a meaningful gift. “Everything was coming together,” Koltai said. “The time was right for me to bring my largest gift to Tufts, which had been my primary philanthropic interest all my life.”

Inspired by a story about a scholarship established by his classmate and best friend since their first day at Tufts in 1972, Diane Hessan, J76, A11P, Koltai has endowed a scholarship aligned with his personal priorities. It will provide financial aid to ensure that at least one community-college transfer student a year will have the opportunity to continue as an undergraduate at Tufts.

Koltai’s scholarship has grown out of his deep interest in addressing income inequality. “It’s hard enough to go to college, but to go to college while working, making car payments, quite likely while having a family, that’s an extraordinary commitment to education,” he said. “Tufts in my life, and in the life of my younger son, was transformative, and it should not be inaccessible simply because someone does not have the means to pay for it.”

Karen Richardson, Tufts dean of undergraduate admissions, said the scholarship reinforces the university’s commitment to building an intellectually vibrant community. Historically, Tufts has received very strong applications from community college transfer students but doesn’t always have the financial aid to admit them. “We greatly appreciate Steve’s generosity,” Richardson said. “Not only does it allow us to admit students who bring a breadth of backgrounds and a different educational experience to campus, but it’s also a win for the university and its continued efforts to foster a community that is diverse in many ways.”

Koltai, a consultant focused on developing entrepreneurship programs in emerging global markets, has a passion for innovation with a social purpose. It’s a theme threaded through his accomplishments in the business and public policy worlds—from investment banking, management consulting, and the entertainment industry (he was senior vice president for strategy at Warner Bros. for a decade) to the Brookings Institution and the Council on Foreign Relations. From 2009 to 2011, he served as the first senior advisor for entrepreneurship at the State Department under Secretary Hillary Clinton. In that role, he began the work he continues to this day—helping to grow entrepreneurship in developing countries.

Koltai’s global career is deeply rooted in his Tufts education, but Tufts was not on his radar when he first came east from his home in Kansas City to look at colleges. In fact, it was only on the recommendation of his dentist, a Tufts graduate and parent, that he decided to visit. He rolled his sleeping bag out in a Miller Hall dorm room, and then the next day, decided to take a look around. “I just fell in love with the place,” Koltai recalled.

As fate would have it, Koltai also decided to chat with the admissions officer on call, Alison “Sunny” Breed, J66, AG72, whose family also happened to hail from Kansas City (she would later lead the alumni association and serve as a Tufts trustee). “We hit it off immediately,” Koltai said. “We walked over to the library roof, and she told me all about what an amazing place Tufts was. So right then and there I applied.” He earned his undergraduate degree at the School of Arts and Sciences in 1976, where he also won the school’s only Fulbright Scholarship. He used it to earn a master’s in European economics at the Free University of Brussels and intern at the Commission of the European Union. He returned to Tufts to earn a master’s degree from The Fletcher School in 1978.

Koltai has stayed actively engaged in the life of the university ever since. He has served on the advisory boards of the School of Arts and Sciences, the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life, and the Communications and Media Studies program. He has been vice chair of the Entrepreneurial Leadership Studies Program at the Gordon Institute and taught a course at Tisch College based on his book Peace Through Entrepreneurship. And he is now a fellow at the Council on Emerging Market Enterprises at The Fletcher School. “Tufts has been an extremely important part of my life,” said Koltai. “I have lived all over the world, and I’ve done a lot of stuff. For me, Tufts has been the one ‘home.’”

Community colleges have played an important role in Koltai’s family. His oldest son found his academic footing at an “indispensable” Maine community college before transferring to Unity College. But his respect for the mission of community colleges goes back even further.

Born in Budapest, Koltai was two years old when his family fled to the United States after the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. His father, Leslie, a journalist in Hungary, took English classes at night at LA City College and ultimately went on to earn an Ed.D. at UCLA. Leslie Koltai rose to prominence in the community college field, first as chancellor of Metropolitan Community College of Kansas City, Missouri, and then as chancellor of the Los Angeles Community College District, building it into the country’s largest system.

As a 12-year-old, Koltai proved himself a convenient (and free) in-house editor of his father’s writing. “While I didn’t necessarily get all the concepts, I could easily find his English mistakes,” Koltai recalled. “I ended up absorbing the importance of community colleges through him.”

Today, Koltai is carrying on his father’s legacy in his own way with the endowed scholarship at Tufts. “I have enormous respect for the community college student,” Koltai said. “For them, attending community college is the first rung on the ladder of an extraordinary career and life. And they are, in my view, among the hardest-working, most serious students—they will value greatly all that a Tufts education can offer. It’s gratifying to know that my legacy will make sure that, for years to come, they can continue their journey at Tufts.”