George Mason University will offer classes in Sterling in August, the first step in a major expansion into Loudoun County for Northern Virginia's public university.

GMU Provost Peter N. Stearns said a growing number of the school's 29,000 students hail from Loudoun so the county is a logical place for expansion.

"The rapid population growth makes it obvious that, despite the presence of lots of different higher education institutions, the opportunity for a real public service university in Loudoun is just too great to resist," Stearns said. "The alternative is people who want public university access figuring they have to leave the county to get it."

He said Loudoun students represent the third-largest segment of the school's student population, after Fairfax and Prince William, numbering between 1,500 and 1,700.

Classes will begin Aug. 29 in leased office space on Ridgetop Circle. Students will be able to earn credit toward a graduate degree in education and undergraduate or graduate degrees in nursing and take preliminary courses in social work. Other undergraduate offerings will include classes in management, information technology and general education.

"These are professional or semi-professional courses that will be useful to be people in the county and are needed in the county," Stearns said.

Students could get up to a year's worth of credit in Loudoun, though they would need to take classes at one of George Mason's other campuses to complete a degree. The university has sites in Prince William and Arlington, along with its main facility in Fairfax.

The Sterling office space will include four classrooms, a computer lab and a student lounge, as well as offices and conference space.

Ultimately, Stearns said, the university hopes to open a full-scale campus in Loudoun, where students could take all their classes for certain degrees. It might be similar to the school's satellite campus in Prince William, a 124-acre multi-building location.

"We're planting a flag there, and we hope to get good response," Stearns said. "I think it will generate interest, and it will open opportunities for dialogue with the county about future needs."

Though George Mason has been an independent university only since 1972, it is Virginia's fastest growing public institution. University plans call for enrollment to swell to 34,000 by 2010.

The school will join numerous other post-secondary educational institutions in Loudoun. George Washington University, Shenandoah University and Northern Virginia Community College have branches in the county.

Higher education leaders have said they believe the county is sprouting a powerful higher education corridor along Route 7, which they believe will receive an enormous boost from the opening of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute research campus next year. They said their schools will help supply trained workers for Hughes, as well as for biotechnology businesses that could relocate to the county to be near the $500 million facility.