Students attending their dream colleges at historic low

A smaller percentage of U.S. students are getting into their preferred school than ever before, a new report shows.

In its latest annual survey of first-year college students, the University of California, Los Angeles' Higher Education Research Institute found that less than 57 percent of this year's freshmen are attending their first-choice schools. That is the lowest figure since UCLA began tracking that information in 1974.

Two major reasons why so many students didn't enroll in their favorite college or university were school costs and inadequate financial aid. Nearly 26 percent of students who were accepted into their top pick ultimately opted not to enroll because they received no financial aid.

The percentage of students who said cost was a "very important" factor in what school they attended, at nearly 46 percent, was also an historic high. In addition, the number of students who said financial aid was "very important" in their enrollment decision was unprecedented: Nearly half of students said financial aid was very important compared, with less than 34 percent a decade ago.

"The difficult financial decisions that students and their families have to make about college are becoming more evident," said Kevin Eagan, the administrator who oversaw the UCLA study, in a statement. "Colleges that can reduce net costs to families are gaining more of an edge in attracting students to their campus. Over 62 percent of students who were admitted to, but did not attend their first-choice colleges said they were offered aid by the institution they chose to attend."

The UCLA study is based on responses from nearly 166,000 full-time freshmen who are enrolled at 234 private and public four-year colleges and universities around the U.S. Researchers statistically weighted the data to reflect the roughly 1.5 million full-time freshmen who enrolled at 1,583 schools in 2013.

One piece of news that students and their families are likely to welcome: Although higher education is increasingly affordable, at least getting into college isn't getting any harder. Three-quarters of freshmen gained admission to their first-choice school, which is consistent with what UCLA has found in recent years, the survey showed.