It's no secret Sugar Land is booming. Its attracted big-box retailers, oil field services and major tech companies like Texas Instruments. It boasts three hospitals and even its own professional baseball team, the Skeeters.

But up until recently Sugar Land's growth has not produced one thing city leaders have longed for: a top-tier research university.

After 12 years as a teaching center for other schools, Sugar Land's University of Houston campus is set to mature into a full branch of the UH flagship, essentially bringing that coveted university presence to one of the area's fastest-growing communities.

The campus, which is shared with Wharton County Junior College, has grown with the city. Enrollment at both schools has swelled 35 percent over the last four years to more than 4,500 students.

But the UH campus didn't keep up, remaining a teaching center without its own programs, while UH colleges in Victoria, Clear Lake and the downtown offered courses remotely. This year, however, the UH System board of regents approved shifting the campus to a full branch of the university. Over the last few weeks, committees put together by Renu Khator, UH System chancellor and president of the main campus, have begun meeting to plan exactly how all of the changes will roll out.

Sugar Land officials have pushed for the shift for years, hoping a prestigious university will continue the city's progress, luring students to town and creating a pipeline of educated workers to keep the businesses coming too.

"We think it's going to be a huge benefit," Sugar Land Mayor James Thompson said. "If you really think about moving under the main campus, we will be considered a tier-one university. Now you're looking at a whole different level of degree planning and recognition, being a graduate of a tier-one university."

Watershed moment

The changes, finally on the horizon, are a "watershed moment," Jeffrey C. Wiley, president and CEO of the Greater Fort Bend Economic Development Council, wrote in an editorial published in the Chronicle in March.

So far, few details are set, but UH has committed to bringing at least 22 programs to Sugar Land, led in part by the School of Technology, which will work closely with the Texas Instruments campus across the street. It's still unclear what those programs will be, but officials say they'll line up with business and community needs.

"We think there's great opportunity for synergy with the local businesses to where we can work together in terms of doing research together and us providing them a high-quality workforce," said Richard D. Phillips, the associate vice chancellor for UH at Sugar Land.

The other universities, meanwhile, will move their programs out of Sugar Land and focus on developing their campuses into destination universities.

In Victoria, enrollment has more than doubled, but the majority of the college's students don't study in the city. Most take online courses and many attend classes in Sugar Land. Officials hope the shift will change that.

Victoria city leaders initially questioned the move, but have now gotten behind it, in part because the system will direct at least enough money to the Victoria campus to make up for its loss of revenue from its Sugar Land programs. Even more resources could follow to support the goal of becoming a destination university.

"I'm optimistic about the whole process," said Victoria Mayor Paul Polasek, who is on one of four committees drawing up plans for the changes.

Head start

The changes will happen slowly, in a two- to five-year window that officials hope will allow all students currently enrolled in programs at UH Sugar Land to finish.

That will be the case for Salima Damani, 44, who is studying health care administration, a Victoria program. Damani, who lives in Sugar Land, said she plans to start taking classes in Victoria soon. But having the campus in Sugar Land allowed her to get a head start.

"I don't know what I would have done without this campus," Damani said.