It was just a month after the Catholic University of America had opened the doors to its new $27 million Pryzbyla Center, and already the place was crowded with students busy at the task of, well, whatever it is they do when they're not in class.

They were lingering over onion rings in the dining hall, hovering over computer terminals to check e-mail, chatting over textbooks and papers, or staring into space from the slumped depths of the new couches.

Miranda Miller, a freshman from Trenton, N.J., had taken up residence with her older brother at a table by a big picture window in the food court -- just talking.

Where did everyone go before the Pryz opened? Miller, 18, thought for a second, then shrugged. "I've seen so many people here that I never saw on campus," she said.

Catholic University today will dedicate its Edward J. Pryzbyla University Center, a building that its president, the Rev. David M. O'Connell, says should serve as "a collective living room, dining room and family room" for the college campus in Northeast's Brookland neighborhood.

The new building -- an airy 104,000-square-foot complex with two dining areas, a bookstore, offices for student groups and extensive lounge space -- reflects a growing new priority for higher education leaders: student life.

In recent years, colleges across the country have been building plush and spacious new student centers intended to enhance a sense of community and entertain a new generation of students who want their increasingly costly educations leavened with a little fun.

George Mason University, the University of Maryland Baltimore County and St. Mary's College of Maryland are among the schools that recently built elaborate student centers. The University of Virginia recently did a major renovation of its 45-year-old Newcomb Hall, while the University of Maryland is in the midst of revamping Stamp Student Union.

The Pryzbyla Center -- named for a 1925 graduate and major donor who died just seven months after attending the groundbreaking three years ago -- consolidates dining facilities previously spread over three buildings. And it replaces the roughly 90-year-old University Center. The lobby of the new building has as much lounge space as the old center's entire space, where the meeting rooms were inaccessible for people in wheelchairs.

"There wasn't a central gathering place," said university spokeswoman Chris Harrison. "We wanted a place where faculty, staff and students could all come to."

Among the major features are a 7,500-square-foot "great room" that can seat 800 people theater-style or 450 for dinner.

"This was a crucial addition," said Bill Jonas, director of the university center, student programs and events. "We often have banquets, and we just didn't have the space to hold them."

With its red brick and maple accents and exposed concrete ceilings, the Pryzbyla contrasts sharply with the heavy stone Beaux Arts-style that characterizes many of the campus's other major buildings. From the windows of the three-story atrium, loungers have views of both the 114-year-old McMahon Hall and the nine-year-old law school building.

So far, the Pryzbyla Center has been warmly received by students, many of whom Harrison spotted grabbing seats at the outdoor picnic benches within hours of their being cemented in.

Miller's brother Jordan, 21, a theology graduate student, said the new building gave him a place to kill time without leaving campus. "Usually if I'm on campus, I'm in the library," he said. Though the old dining halls played that role for many students, they didn't offer hanging-out space for nondiners.

"It makes a community of campus," said Chaka Padilla, 21, a junior from New York, who chatted with a friend in the lounge area as she left her job in the center's convenience store. "Everybody comes to the Pryz."

Full-wall windows at the new Pryzbyla Center give students a sweeping view. The center has areas for dining, study and socializing.The Pryzbyla Center's modern, informal look contrasts sharply with the heavy stone architecture of other major campus buildings. One of the campus center's most distinctive features is a three-story atrium.