George Washington University held its first class at its Northern Virginia campus east of Leesburg last Friday, marking the latest in a series of milestones as private colleges establish academic centers in Loudoun County.

Fifteen doctoral students drove past a sea of mud and heavy construction equipment to reach a temporary classroom building near the 50-acre GWU Northern Virginia campus site. The campus is planned as the focal point of a 575-acre development of the Charles E. Smith Construction Cos. that will include high-tech businesses as well as shops and homes.

Several other university classes are slated to begin next month, and officials project enrollment of more than 1,000 students in two years. The campus will emphasize engineering, applied science and management.

GWU is far from alone in the academic surge to Loudoun. In February, the Arlington-based Marymount University began holding classes in rented space in Countryside. For about five years, the Winchester-based Shenandoah College and Conservatory has hosted a few courses in the Leesburg area.

Still on the horizon is a bid by a group of Japanese business leaders to establish a new university along Goose Creek, on the Lansdowne development site. Slated to open in two years, Washington International University would allow Asians and Americans to study each other's language, culture, history and business practices.

Private institutions have varying missions in coming to Loudoun. In the case of George Washington University, the idea came from Smith President Robert H. Smith, who is on the GWU Board of Trustees. The proposal was designed in part to attract business to the development surrounding the campus. But in all cases, the schools see a market for specialized and graduate-level courses close to where many Northern Virginians live and work.

While private colleges have been rushing to establish a presence in Loudoun, state-supported institutions have had a rougher time. Northern Virginia Community College's Sterling campus is at capacity and making cutbacks this fall.

The State Council of Higher Education has been moving slowly on proposals by some state schools, including George Mason University, to expand programs into Loudoun and elsewhere in Virginia. And a year of increasingly bad budget news has put a crimp in state-supported universities' construction programs.

State education officials concede that there will be a tremendous demand for higher education in Northern Virginia as job requirements increase and the school-age population in the region rises. The restrictions on the state-supported institutions may be part of the reason private schools are faring so well, said Ed Parks, who heads Marymount's Loudoun academic center.

"We're delighted but surprised" at the interest in Marymount's Loudoun program, which began in February with about 60 students and is already at capacity with nearly 230, Parks said. Most of the offerings are senior-level undergraduate courses and master's classes in business, education and management. Parks said he's looking for more space.

Shenandoah President Jim Davis said his school will have space in the nearly completed Leesburg government municipal center and eventually may study expanding its services in Loudoun.

Last Friday, workers were putting the finishing touches on the roof as a ribbon-cutting ceremony began at the George Washington University academic center, near the intersection of Routes 7 and 28.

The GWU students who pioneered the campus aren't exactly your typical college freshmen, and the first class session was anything but routine. Part of a doctoral program in human resource development, the class is made up of established professionals, and they meet from 8:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. two days a month.

Yet some of the students' concerns were not much different from those of a youngster away from home for the first time: food and cars.

The two vending machines in the building dispense only drinks, so the students had to come prepared: They set up a long table with crackers, fruit and coffee makers because of their lengthy sessions.

"I think we can make it through two days," said Andrea Casey, a doctoral student who lives in Fairfax County and works for the university.

"Also, they told us not to wash our cars" because of the mud that accompanies the huge construction effort, said student Ann-Michele Gundlach, who lives in Baltimore.