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Colleges' hidden problem: Finding students

(MoneyWatch) If you believe most media accounts, you probably assume that most colleges are so flush with applicants that they reject the majority of the teenagers who apply.

Wrong. College is actually a buyer's market. Most schools accept the majority of their applicants. And college administrators live in fear that they won't attract enough freshmen to meet their admission figures.

You can get an inside look at what's really going on in the world of college admissions by reading a new survey of admission directors conducted by Gallup that was commissioned by Inside Higher Ed, a respected trade publication. 

One of the survey's more surprising findings: During the last admission season, 59 percent of admission directors at state and private institutions said that they didn't reach their enrollment goals by May 1. That's the traditional day when applicants must submit a deposit for the college they decide to attend. Forty-six percent of admission directors also said they were "very concerned" about meeting their targets for the 2013-14 admission season.

What you might find shocking is that 29 percent of admission directors acknowledged that they continued to recruit students after the May 1 deadline, which has traditionally been taboo. The practice provides yet another indication that schools are desperate to fill their freshmen classes as household incomes continue to stagnate and the price of colleges continues to climb. 

Here is what else some admission administrators are thinking, according to the survey:

Colleges think their peers are cheating. While nearly all respondents said that their schools have not falsely reported standardized test scores or other admission data, 93 percent believe other colleges and universities have.

Schools are making greater efforts to recruit higher-income students. A large percentage of schools are working harder to recruit students who have a greater ability to pay. Schools are boosting their merit scholarships, which are awarded without regard for financial need. International students, particularly affluent Chinese students, are also a popular target. Public universities are seeking more out-of-state students because they can charge them much higher tuition than their own residents.

Inside Higher Ed

Dissing the net price calculator. In the survey, the vast majority of admission directors were not impressed with net price calculators, which the federal government mandated that all schools must offer families on their websites. These calculators provide students with a personalized estimate of what a school will cost a family after anticipated scholarships and grants are deducted.

Nobody likes the rankings. While admission officials weren't impressed by the new federal financial tools, they were even less impressed by college rankings such as those published yearly by U.S. News & World Report. Only two percent of admission directors agreed that college rankings were "very effective in helping students find an institution that will be a good fit."