Experiencing a booming increase in demand for tours, Rutgers University this fall opened a new $7.5 million welcome center in its home base of New Brunswick with lots of parking, space to host hundreds and state-of-the-art virtual tours.

Exhibits for the new facility were designed by the same firm that worked on the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. and the NASCAR Hall of Fame, which will open in Charlotte, N.C. in 2010.

"We wanted to create a 'wow,'" said Courtney McAnuff, the university's vice president for enrollment management.

The state's flagship university, set on a sprawling 5,000 acres in New Brunswick with major campuses also in Newark and Camden, Rutgers this year topped 54,000 students – its largest number ever. Hundreds of students will spend the academic year in a hotel for the second consecutive year because the university hasn't been able to build dorms fast enough to house them, although 2,000 more beds are in the planning.

And interest continues to mount at the school, which charges on average $22,262 for tuition and room and board.

The university attributes the growing interest in Rutgers to the school's rising visibility because of the winning football team and the search by families for more affordable options such as state schools.

Less than a year ago, the school was ranked by SmartMoney Magazine as sixth in the nation in educational value as measured by median salaries of graduates. Fifty public and private schools were surveyed.

Since 2003, Rutgers has seen a walloping 179 percent increase in visitors for tours, from 15,119 to 42,197 in 2008, admissions officials said. The numbers convinced university officials that they needed a better location to introduce students and parents to the school.

Near the football stadium, the new 12,000-foot, two-story welcome center on the Busch Campus in Piscataway, is distinguished by a large red wall with the university's signature block R in white that seems to grow out of the ground into the sky. A high-tech, light-filled building, it has a wall of glass that will make its key feature – a scarlet wall exhibit – visible from the road. It includes historical timelines and exhibits on the university's academics, campus and students.

The center opened for tours on Sept. 2, but its official ceremony will be next week. And new features, exhibits and landscaping will be added throughout the school year, with its completion by next summer. When it is finished, McAnuff said it is likely to host 170,000 visitors a year for tours and other events.

It can seat hundreds and park hundreds, compared to the previous visitors center where tours had to cram into space for 50 people.

Universities across the country vary in what they offer visitors, from those that host prospective students in "the basement of a central administration building that hasn't had a coat of paint in 10 years to state of the art facilities," said Barmak Nassirian of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admission Officers.

Building fancy new centers was more common before recent economic times, he said.

He was unsure how Rutgers' facility would be received - as a plus or a pricey venture. "I can almost guarantee them a wow, but in which direction, I don't know."

McAnuff said the $5.5 million to design and build the center came from the university's capital budget, but the additional $2 million for special features is being covered by donations. The class of 1951 has led the way with a $700,000 contribution. The university has collected another $66,000 from various donors.

It also intends to offer naming rights for a $5 million donation.

"We've gotten a few bites, but this has really been a bad time. When we conceptualized this, we didn't think the economy would bottom out like this," he said.

But the new center was needed, he emphasized.

The old welcome center in Van Nest Hall on the College Avenue Campus in New Brunswick was cramped and hard-to-find. It had only metered parking or pay decks.

"People were a little frustrated by the time they got here," he said.

Sometimes the school would use a meeting room in the Busch Campus Center, but that would cut into other university activities, McAnuff said. The school had to turn some tours away, he said.

The new site is visible and accessible off Route 18, with a 250-space parking lot, dinner seating for 250, theater-style seating for 400 and a patio for up to 200. It will be used for other university events in addition to tours.

The main exhibit is a university historical timeline on a scarlet wall, eight feet high and 42 feet long. It and other exhibits have been designed by Ralph Appelbaum Associates.

There's an IPOD at the end of the time line that the university will use to add new milestones to the history. The exhibit also will include a touch screen satellite image system that will allow viewers to zoom in and see Rutgers' facilities around the world.

Eventually the center will add other exhibits, such as virtual tours of housing and classrooms and a virtual yearbook in which graduates from any year can see their picture. A lit, 10-foot glass frieze with historical facts in the main meeting area will rim ceiling walls.

The building is already creating its own buzz. McAnuff has turned down wedding requests. And, he's had at least 30 requests for samples of the carpeting - grayish with red Rs.