Timothy Knowles, the outgoing director of the Urban Education Institute, has proposed a new community city college for high-achieving honors students in Chicago.
The proposed college would be a collaboration with the Obama presidential library and would symbolize President Obama’s mission to increase college completion rates for young people. According to a 2013 e-mail from Knowles, the college would eventually become the “academic crown jewel for the city college system.”
The idea, conceived in 2013, came to light after a lawsuit prompted Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office to release thousands of e-mails to the public. In one brief July 2013 interaction, Knowles proposed his ideas to the mayor and other allies in the city, who called it “interesting.” Emanuel stated that he had recently been thinking of a similar plan, but the e-mail chain does not reveal what that idea was, nor does Knowles know.
In his initial e-mail to Emanuel, Knowles wrote that the new city college should be rigorous, selective, and explicitly designed as a pipeline for high-achieving students to eventually transfer into four-year universities. He also wrote that the college would ideally be charter-based or privately operated and tenure- and union-free.
Knowles told The Maroon that the idea is still in its preliminary phases, and it has not been developed since 2013.
“This seemed like a really logical marriage,” Knowles told The Maroon, referring to the proposed college’s ideal proximity to the Obama presidential library.
Since the release of the e-mails, Knowles has gone public about his goals for the city college in a recent interview with DNAInfo. Despite the lack of concrete plans, Knowles is hopeful that this idea might one day move forward if it is given enough exposure and time.
“The real reason for [the college], though, is rooted in the very best social science that shows the direct line between educational attainment…and everything that we care about, ranging from lifespan to earnings to voting. That led me to think about what the city could do to increase educational attainment for large numbers of city kids.”
Knowles’s vision of the college as union- and tenure-free was rooted in his appreciation for the flexibility that charter school systems allow. “I thought in creating a new city college, one could imagine reducing the constraints and thinking more imaginatively about what a city college could look like,” he said. He added that whether or not tenure should exist at the school should be up for debate if plans move forward.
For students in Chicago, the inability to pay for college is one of the biggest obstacles to graduating. College completion rates in the city are low; in 2006, only 8 percent of all ninth-grade boys completed a four-year college education, and that number dropped to 4 percent for black and Latino boys, according to Knowles and a report by the UChicago Consortium of Chicago School Research. In recent years, those numbers have climbed, but they are still low compared to the national average. Studying at a community college and then transferring to a four-year college or university could save students 30 percent of their investment, which could drastically improve completion rates, according to Knowles.
Knowles hopes that, should his vision come to fruition, the University would be heavily involved with the new college. “This is all a big theoretical, but if, say, the city college was built in Woodlawn or in Englewood or in Bronzeville even, but proximate to the University, I would hope very much that the University would be interested and engaged in thinking about how it could bring its resources—its students, graduate students, faculty—and other assets to make it a great institution.”
Knowles, who has been at the University since 2003, will be departing from his position at the Urban Education Institute on February 1. In his new position, he will help develop a nonprofit and social venture organization that creates K-12 college-to-career pipelines.