George Mason University, whose staggering growth has defied national trends and overloaded its faculty and facilities, soon will begin a capital campaign that would be among the largest ever undertaken by a university in Virginia.

George Mason officials said yesterday that the Fairfax County school could launch the fund-raising drive, with a possible goal of $100 million, within two years.

The capital campaign would signal a new era for George Mason, which despite national ambitions, climbing standards and a 1986 Nobel laureate -- economics professor James M. Buchanan -- depends largely on a paltry endowment of $20 million and the largesse of the state. Virginia will provide the university with about $45 million in general fund support in the current fiscal year.

"George Mason has come about as far as it can come with Band-Aids and mirrors and bootstrap operations," said John T. (Til) Hazel Jr., the prominent Fairfax developer who is president of the George Mason University Educational Foundation Inc., the school's fund-raising arm.

Hazel, twice rector of George Mason and a former member of the Board of Visitors, has been the university's leading benefactor for more than a decade. In a speech yesterday to the Northern Virginia Press Club, he also said that the capital campaign's goal "will startle some people but still be inadequate" to meet the university's expanding needs.

Founded three decades ago, George Mason has a comparatively small pool of alumni. But officials are counting on Northern Virginia's explosive economic growth and prosperous business community for a large chunk of the fund-raising effort.

"The growth and development of Northern Virginia has expanded a lot of people's horizons of what's possible," said J. Wade Gilley, senior vice president of George Mason. "We're in the midst of a booming business community with an immense amount of wealth."

George Mason, which began as a branch of the University of Virginia, is now an independently chartered public institution just south of Fairfax City in the heart of the county.

The university's fund-raising plans also come at a time when many public universities are turning to ambitious capital drives to augment the support they receive from financially strapped state governments.

For example, Ohio State is in the midst of a five-year, $350 million drive. In Virginia, the University of Virginia in Charlottesville raised $147 million in a campaign concluded two years ago, and Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg collected $108 million in a three-year drive that ended this year.

"No state-supported university can ever achieve real excellence without additional private support augmentation," said George Mason President George W. Johnson.

Johnson, who since 1978 has presided over George Mason's expansion in size and prestige, said the university had not embarked upon a capital drive earlier because "you have to reach a certain stage of maturity as an institution before you can do it."

In the last four years, the number of full-time students at George Mason has edged toward 12,000 from less than 10,000. Mean scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test also have climbed steadily but still trail students' scores at the nation's top-ranked institutions. The average faculty salary has shot up to nearly $49,000 from $35,000 -- an enticement that has lured many prominent professors, particularly in engineering, economics and high-technology areas.

Hazel and George Mason officials said the fund-raising target could be in the $100 million range, but the university has not set a definite goal. Johnson said a meeting is scheduled for September with a consultant who will make recommendations about the precise scale, timetable and strategy of the drive.

Gilley, the vice president, said the priorities for the campaign will be building the university's endowment and offering more professorships and scholarships. New buildings and facilities are secondary priorities, he said.