An Interview with Dallas Joseph

An Interview with Dallas Joseph

Following the publication of SSATB’s 2013 State of the Independent School Admission Industry report, Executive Director Heather Hoerle opined, “Admission directors need to be seen as their institution’s chief revenue/relationship officer, and in concert with their school’s chief finance officer and chief advancement officer, they should work to research/maximize all revenue channels. This trio should look carefully at expense controls and make recommendations to the head of school on financial sustainability.”

Memberanda sat down with Dallas Joseph, Chief Financial Officer of the Baylor School (TN), incoming SSATB board member and outgoing board chair for the National Business Officers Association (NBOA), to glean his perspectives on the challenges facing independent schools and on the relationship between the business office and the admission office.

You’ve spent 22 years working on the business side of education. What is keeping CFOs like you up at night?

We are fortunate, because Baylor is in a position of strength. As a result, I don’t have to spend a lot of time thinking about the day-to-day. Instead, I think more about the school’s future. What keeps me up at night (besides my youngest son, who is home from college!) is trying to anticipate what Baylor will look like in five years. There are some things we know in terms of local population and income demographics that we can use for financial modeling. However, we have to anticipate how we will deliver educational content to students five to 10 years down the road and get comfortable with the fact that it may look totally different than it does today. We talk about the tools available today, but what will the tools of tomorrow look like? As CFOs, we have to try to put together information and have conversations with key administrators and board members about “what’s coming” rather than “what’s already here.”

Heather Hoerle wrote that even the most selective schools feel the uncertainty in the market in 2013. Do you sense this change?  How has your school prepared for this new normal?

Absolutely. Prior to the 2008-2009 market correction, Baylor was preparing for a change, although we certainly weren’t predicting the extent of the correction. When I came on board at Baylor in 2000, we recognized that we had to operate differently in order for the school to sustain itself. So we began studying demographic changes, and because we began preparing in 2002, we had a five-year head start.  We did not downsize just to downsize; we approached it as “rightsizing.” We knew that less than 4% of Chattanooga’s population could afford a Baylor education, and less than 2% had children. Chattanooga is a huge private school market already, and we realized that the demographics couldn’t support current enrollment levels moving forward. At that time, we sought to reduce our reliance on day students and to increase the boarding population. We also looked at a different way of budgeting. Prior to 2000, because of the demand in the market place, we always budgeted at admission goal levels rather than at a more conservative level. So, we began budgeting at 10-20 students below the established admission goal for the year. If we reached the goal number, great, but balancing the budget was not dependent on admission reaching its goal. That was the start of “rightsizing” the school.

SSATB is advocating stronger partnerships between admission and business officers. Is this necessary in your mind?  How will schools achieve this and to what end?

Is it necessary? Yes, and I would hope that this is not something for which SSATB has a tough time advocating. The admission officer, the development officer, the business officer – we’re basically a team, and we all have to be operating from the same playbook. I don’t know how schools operate in silos anymore. If you are operating in silos, valuable information doesn’t make it to the right people. It’s one thing for me to do the local demographic research, but I need to hear from admission, since they are “talking” with the families represented in my study. Ultimately, admission is out front answering this question: Is our product worth it? What I’ve picked up about admission officers is that people have come to the position from all walks of life. In the past, this might have been OK. The current economic environment requires the admission officer to be more of a strategist.  In fact, today most admission officers are responsible for enrollment management (marketing, admission policies, retention programs, and financial aid). Regardless of the organizational structure, financial aid needs to bridge both worlds. As tuitions rise, strong and effective links between the admission office and business office staffs become increasingly important in support of achieving student enrollment goals.

It’s a fine line that distinguishes whether a call from a parent belongs in the financial aid office or in the business office. Conversations tend to begin with questions about an outstanding student account balance and lead to missing financial aid forms, or vice versa. Even more common are calls that originate in another campus office, such as financial aid, and are transferred to the business office for help with billing questions. In order to minimize transferring calls across campus, which increases caller frustration, a “best practice” would be to answer aid and outstanding bill questions all at once.

How often do you meet with Jim Kennedy (Baylor School’s director of admission)? What kind of a relationship do you ideally want with him? What is your goal for this relationship?

I meet with Jim once or twice a week, maybe more during admission and financial aid season. I trust and respect his role. I see him as a real strategic thinker. I couldn’t do what I’m doing in terms of long-term thinking about the school without Jim at the table. What’s my goal for the relationship? To make sure that, if Jim has information, he doesn’t wonder if he should tell me; rather, it’s automatic, and vice versa. We have this kind of relationship because mutual respect is more important than reporting lines, and it fosters support instead of competition.

An appreciation for each office’s role in achieving the mission of the institution leads to greater efficiencies. To any admission director reading this, I would say if a close working relationship with your business officer is not currently in place, begin by dropping by the business office for a chat. Have impromptu conversations. Build a relationship. Demonstrate your value. Information sharing can happen in a productive, informal setting; you don’t have to begin by calling a formal meeting. I’m not a fan of communicating via voice mail or email. The simplest details should be communicated face-to-face, which is how you really build a relationship. When we communicate electronically, the other person doesn’t really get a feel for who the other person is—facial expressions, tone of voice. The difference is communicating AT one another versus WITH one another.

When you gather with finance colleagues at meetings and conferences, how does admission—specifically your school’s admission leader—figure into the conversation?

Rarely do my colleagues and I talk in depth about the admission office, or about the leader of the admission office. My colleagues and I don’t take for granted what they do, but we trust what they do. When we talk about admission, we talk about the admission challenges they are facing. Incidentally, my answer would have been no different had you asked about the development office/leader. When CFOs gather, we are trying to figure out what to do about the financial model of independent schools moving forward.

Realizing that this is an oversimplification of a complex issue, what are three critical pieces of information/data that admission directors should provide to the CFO/head/board to aid tuition setting?

First, we need local/national market feedback, i.e. information gathered from conversations with families as well as information gathered by talking with other private schools in the local community or marketplace. Second, we need demographic data – population, income levels, financial aid needs, and number of candidates in the pool. Third, we need an analysis of local and regional tuition numbers for peer institutions. 

From your perspective, what kind of data help make the best case for increasing the financial aid budget?

I’d look for an historical view of income levels of families receiving financial aid. Have there been changes? Then, I’d look at the grades at which we are spending financial aid dollars to attract kids to school. Has that changed over time? What’s the percentage of need being met? I’d also look at program results. If the strategic plan calls for a more robust academic program that supports graduating kids with higher SAT scores/more National Merit scholars, how is that working? How are mission objectives being met? If they’re not being met, is it because you don’t have enough aid to meet the need of families you are bringing to the table?

About three years ago, Baylor’s board felt we were pricing middle income families out of the school. When we put our financial aid distribution data together, we were able to demonstrate that ten years ago, the majority of financial aid dollars was going to families with household incomes between $0 and $50K. Today, 70-80% is going to families making between $70K and $120K per year (Baylor’s middle income families). It was eye-opening for the board to see the data and operate on facts rather than hearsay.

If Baylor were hiring a new director of admission, and you were part of the interviewing team, what would be your top three candidate questions?

I would want to know the type of experience he/she is bringing to the table.  Today, more than ever, a school needs a strategic person in the admission office. I would want to know his/her expectations and understand whether the person was coming in to be the day-to-day manager or to fulfill the strategy role. I would like to know whether he/she loves working with students and parents. At the end of the day, our ability to work with students is what we’re all about. We’re trying to attract and retain the best students possible, and the connection between the admission officer and student/parent is key.

In your opinion, what key financial skills do admission officers need to do their jobs well? Do you have any recommendations for reading and/or training that would translate well to admission?

The admission officer should be a forward-looking, visionary leader, with great strategic and analytic skills and exceptional interpersonal and communication skills. The number of prospective students who demonstrate financial need is at an all-time high. Admission officers need to be equipped to discuss the value of a private education, as well as financial aid policies and financing options.  Admission officers can no longer wait to discuss cost until late in the process. Those who can speak firsthand about the financial aid process and evaluate need, student loans, and how the family can “afford our independent school tuition” are sure to be more effective than those who simply approach the process as a timetable or checklist.

I like Jim Collins’ book, Good to Great, for a 50,000-foot perspective about leadership. In terms of training—whether it’s SSATB, NBOA, NAIS, or your state, local, regional associations—they are all out there doing an outstanding job of providing professional development opportunities from which admission officers can learn. The more you know about how your institution works, the better job you’ll do.

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