If it has been a while since you've driven through the heart of this Eastern Shore city, the buildings might come as a shock. One after another, they tower shiny and modern above the chain restaurants and strip-mall shops that dominate Route 13.

The buildings, three of them with a combined price tag of $165 million, are the outward manifestation of Salisbury University's changing self-image.

For years, Salisbury was known for its proximity to the beach and for the ease with which its name (then Salisbury State) could be repurposed for "Salisbury steak" puns. The majority of students came from the Eastern Shore, and the campus didn't look like much from the city's main business drag along Route 13.

But the university dropped the "State" in 2001, and in the decade since, admissions standards have risen and students from the Baltimore and Washington areas have become a majority in the campus population. If the rest of Maryland was slow to notice, university officials hope the thoroughly modern buildings might hammer home the point.

"I feel like we're becoming a campus that can compete with the big dogs," says Steph Kiefer, a junior from Sparks.

University President Janet Dudley-Eshbach says the campus hadn't added a building in 12 years when she took over in 2000, and the working logic said the university had little room to grow.

"It bothered me that we weren't getting our share," she says. "Along Route 13, it was so ugly. You couldn't even tell you were on a college campus."

Dudley-Eshbach says she steps back four or five times a day to marvel at the university's new look. "I don't think it's ever going to get old," she says, before detailing her ambitious plans for an athletic field house and $90 million library.

"She has really been a bold and decisive leader," says David Nevins, a former chairman of the University System of Maryland Board of Regents. "It's incredibly impressive what they've done there."

Salisbury's recent face-lift began in 2008 with the opening of the $65 million Teacher Education and Technology Center, the largest academic building on campus. Next came the $55 million Franklin P. Perdue School of Business, which opened in September and afforded a quantum leap in technology to one of the university's signature programs. Finally, the university opened Sea Gull Square, a $45 million complex of student apartments and shops that replaced a worn strip mall on the edge of campus.

The buildings aren't the only signs of the university's improving reputation.

Kiplinger's Personal Finance lists Salisbury second among five Maryland schools that made the publication's list of 100 best values in public education. The student body has grown from 6,400 to 8,600 during Dudley-Eshbach's tenure. Applications from out of state have increased by 30 percent, and combined SAT scores have risen 64 points in the past five years.

Administrators say some of the growth can be tied directly to the new facilities.

Enrollment in Salisbury's teacher education programs, for example, has blossomed in the three years since the education building opened, says dean Dennis Pataniczek. The early-childhood education program, which had nine students a decade ago, has added 70 since 2008. The social work program, which shares the building, has used high-tech classrooms to beam courses to Hagerstown and Cecil County. This spring, health workers from the surrounding area took a class in the building, taught from a trauma center in Boston.

"People who haven't been here for a while would be shocked," says Sasha Greenfeld, a senior from Baltimore majoring in social work.

The top floor of the facility features a high-definition video production studio and an audio recording studio that's open to campus musicians every Wednesday night.

"I think you'd be hard-pressed to find studios like this at another university in Maryland," says David Burns, a communications professor who adds that he was lured from College Park by the quality of the facilities.

Before the Perdue building opened this fall, business professors and students occupied an old elementary school, where the water fountains still stood at tyke height and where, rumor had it, a pack of squirrels seized their own office.

"It was like a black hole," says Christian Khoury, a senior business management major from Laurel. "We dreaded going to it."