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Obama Community College? Expert Pushes Campus Near Presidential Library

By Sam Cholke | January 4, 2017 7:23am | Updated on January 6, 2017 11:03am
 Tim Knowles, the departing chairman of the Urban Education Institute, said he's pushed the mayor to create a new community college.
Tim Knowles, the departing chairman of the Urban Education Institute, said he's pushed the mayor to create a new community college.
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Flicrk/Daniel X. O'Neil, inset Courtesy of the Urban Education Insitute

HYDE PARK — A new city college near the Obama Library?

On his way out the door as the leader of the University of Chicago’s influential education institute, Timothy Knowles made a push for the city to start a new community college.

In an interview late last week, Knowles, the departing chairman of the Urban Education Institute, went public with a proposal for a new community college that would partner with the Barack Obama presidential library, an idea he’s advocated to the mayor behind closed doors.

“One of the big reasons kids don’t finish college is money,” Knowles said. “City Colleges make it a lot more affordable.”

He said the idea would be to create a community college that would specifically attract honors-level students coming out of CPS that can’t afford to go to a four-year college.

Knowles said it could drop the cost of getting a college degree by as much as a third for students.

He said the college would be built from the ground up with the focus on sending kids on to four-year colleges and as a model that could be replicated nationally.

Knowles said the idea struck him in 2013 when talk first started about where the Obama library would go.

“I thought there’s the opportunity to leverage a significant new institution,” Knowles said.

Emails between him and Mayor Rahm Emanuel — released Dec. 21 — show Knowles first pitched the idea to Emanuel in 2013.

"Ideally, city would build it next to the Obama library — a manifestation of the president's call to dramatically increase the number of Americans finishing college, a national model and an academic crown jewel for the city college system," Knowles says in the email to Emanuel. 

Emanuel, in an email response to Knowles back then, said the idea “dovetails with an idea I’ve been noodling around with. Not the same, but first cousins.”

It’s unclear what idea Emanuel was referencing and Knowles said he was not aware of what the mayor was referencing.

The emails also show that Knowles forwarded the idea to Joyce Foundation President Ellen Alberding and Elizabeth Swanson, then deputy for education under Emanuel and now vice president of strategy and programs at the Joyce Foundation.

Alberding calls the idea "interesting" in the emails.

Lauren Huffman, a spokeswoman for the Mayor's Office, said Emanuel has invested a lot in the City Colleges system in the past six years to provide more scholarship opportunities and to work with four-year colleges.

"As we work to expand upon CCC’s growth and improve college access and success for students citywide, we look forward to partnering with the Obama Presidential Library and harnessing the cultural and educational benefits that it will bring for our city’s next generation," Huffman said.

Huffman did not say whether any work had been done researching Knowles' idea.

“Maybe that was an idea whose time has not yet come,” Knowles said. “I think the mayor is open to the idea.”

He said he has not proposed the idea to the Obama Foundation, the nonprofit developing the library, and has not pressed Emanuel on the idea since 2013.

A spokeswoman for the Obama Foundation declined to comment.

A representative from the City Colleges was not available to comment.

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