HAGERSTOWN -- The University System of Maryland center here doesn't feel like a place of learning yet.
Offices are empty, student lounges are bare and workers busily install light fixtures and projectors. When C. David Warner III walks through the halls, his footsteps echo. "I'm looking forward to having more people here," said Warner, the center's executive director.
Warner's wish will come true tonight, when the long-awaited satellite branch of the state university system opens its doors. The center is Maryland's first new public institution of higher learning in nearly eight years and comes at a critical time for the system.
Officials are expecting an enrollment boom -- some estimate as many as 40,000 additional students could enroll in public universities over the next decade -- and the system needs places to put them.
The new center is expected to accommodate some of the expected surplus. About 400 students have signed up for courses at the Hagerstown center, and system officials hope enrollment will double over the next decade.
The satellite center is designed primarily for working adults. Most classes will be held at night, and students may transfer to the school only when they are juniors, seniors or pursuing a graduate degree.
The center should also fill an educational void in Washington County. Virtually all of the system's 11 campuses are located in central or eastern Maryland. Frostburg State University, nearly 80 miles away from Hagerstown, is the closest public university.
"That's too far for a working parent to go for classes," Warner said.
Many state leaders say that the lack of public universities has contributed to Washington County's low college graduation rate. There are two community colleges and several private universities in the Hagerstown area, but many county residents get their degrees from four-year public universities in nearby West Virginia or Pennsylvania or don't get a bachelor's degree at all.
About 15 percent of Washington County residents have a college degree, according to the most recent U.S. census. Nearly 30 percent of Marylanders graduated college.
"It's going to be a shot in the arm for the whole area, which has been underserved in the past," said Tom Finan, a member of the university system's Board of Regents.
Local legislators had been lobbying for a University of Maryland campus in Hagerstown for years, but "it didn't get anywhere until Parris Glendening came into office," said state Sen. Donald F. Munson, a Hagerstown Republican.
In addition to helping get the facility approved, Glendening also ordered that the center be located in downtown Hagerstown as part of his Smart Growth, anti-sprawl policies. University system officials had wanted to put the center on a piece of undeveloped land along Interstate 70.
Workers spent nearly two years renovating a former hotel and a department store building in the center of Hagerstown. The total cost of the project was nearly $13 million. Hagerstown officials are also spending about $1.3 million to create a plaza next door, and the city is creating additional parking for the university.
Faculty from three system institutions -- the University of Maryland, Baltimore, Frostburg and the university system's online university -- will teach courses at the center. Undergraduate classes will be offered in accounting, business administration, criminal justice, liberal studies, nursing and sociology. Master's degrees will be offered in business, education and social work.
Students will receive degrees from one of the three institutions. The center will not offer its own diploma.
System officials and legislators hope the center will compel students to stay in Washington County after they graduate. "For kids in this area who want to go to college, a lot leave their community, and they don't come back," Munson said.
Across the state line in Pennsylvania, officials at Shippensburg University say they don't believe the new center will affect their enrollment. About 200 Maryland residents enroll at Shippensburg every year, said Joe Cretella, the school's dean of admissions.
"We're focusing more on the traditional-age college students, so I don't think we would compete with the University of Maryland unless they turn into a full-on, four-year university," Cretella said.
System officials say it is unlikely the center would ever become a traditional campus but add that they have plenty of room to grow. They hope the center can eventually offer day and weekend classes.
But before the center can begin offering some labs, there is work to be done. The nursing lab is still lacking key equipment, such as patient beds. "It's going to be a while before they get to that part of the class, so I haven't ordered it yet," Warner said. "Too much stuff to do."