George Mason University's plan to build a campus in Loudoun County was born out of a tough Northern Virginia reality: There's not enough room in local colleges and universities for the region's booming population.
While a political struggle continues in Loudoun over the planned campus and a development project near Dulles International Airport, higher education officials said yesterday that a major new outpost would be a welcome -- though insufficient -- addition to the region's strained network of two- and four-year colleges.
"Northern Virginia is the place people want to be. It's reflected in our housing prices going up. It's reflected in our road congestion. And it's reflected in our demand for higher education," said Robert Templin, president of Northern Virginia Community College. "The population is exploding faster than we can possibly keep up."
In Loudoun, which has grown faster than any other county in the nation since 2000, educators and officials see the shortage of college desk space becoming more acute.
"The families that come out here have a lot of kids," said Loudoun demographer Clark Draper. "That'll be the market coming up for higher education."
In addition to NVCC, a host of colleges and universities have operations in Loudoun, including Old Dominion, George Washington, Shenandoah and Marymount universities and Patrick Henry College, a Christian school. GMU has a program in rented space in a business park, but it is not enough.
"More brainpower is a good thing," said John Wilson, dean of the GWU Virginia campus, which opened in Loudoun in 1991 and has expanded rapidly. "The current higher education infrastructure can't meet all of the demand, and that's why we welcome George Mason University to the area."
GWU offers graduate programs in education, engineering and business. "Our campus just recently went from 50 acres to 95 acres. We're growing," Wilson said. "Even with the arrival of GMU, the demand will still be high."
GMU's plan for a campus in Loudoun is part of the university's vision of building a "distributed university" with outlets in major area jurisdictions to accommodate a burgeoning student population.
"One of the things we really want to do is serve an expanding population with a full service, four-year public university in ways that don't force them to always have to travel significant distances," said Provost Peter Stearns. "They can, and do, commute to places like our Fairfax campus. But as the population grows and traffic gets worse, that's going to get less desirable."
The question of where a GMU campus belongs in Loudoun touches on the county's long-running fight over future development. Greenvest, a politically connected development firm, offered to give GMU 123 acres in a sparsely populated area where it wants to build 15,000 homes.
Proponents of placing a campus west of Dulles Airport say it would be a generous gift that would anchor a new generation of high-quality suburbs. Detractors have argued that the offer is designed to make what they call Greenvest's irresponsible development plans more palatable, rather than to aid students.
Loudoun County Board of Supervisors Chairman Scott K. York (I-At Large) said he supports donating 101 acres of county-owned land in Ashburn, a more developed area, to GMU for a county campus. Supervisor Stephen J. Snow (R-Dulles) said he wants GMU to stick with the Greenvest site, which is in his district near the village of Arcola. GMU officials said they had not heard there might be an alternative.
Sid Dewberry, director of GMU's Board of Visitors, said the Greenvest site is "not really my first choice for a location today." Dewberry suggested that the university would consider another donated site in a good location closer to the current population and the Dulles Greenway, but that it had faith in the future of the 123-acre site.
"Universities have to look 20, 30, 40 years [out]," he said. "I think it will be a densely populated area."