It's only 8 a.m., but the parking lot at New River Valley Mall in Christiansburg, Va., is already full of cars. Inside the 396,000-square-foot mall, classes are about to begin at New River Community College, which occupies roughly 23,000 square feet, and students are grabbing coffee in the nearby food court.

The college, which opened a satellite campus in the mall in November 2007, anchors the Philadelphia-based Pennsylvania REIT-owned center along with Belk's, JCPenney and Sears. It took over a vacant movie theater and originally planned to host classes for 600 students at the mall. But, the satellite campus enrollment has topped 900 students, and now it's hoping to expand within the mall, according to Joseph Coradino, president of PREIT Services LLC and PREIT-RUBIN Inc.

New River Community College is one of several colleges across the U.S. that has opened a branch in a mall or shopping center. In many cases, shopping center owners turn to colleges and other educational uses to backfill vacant space.

But, these schools aren't just alternatives when other retailers aren't available. These nontraditional anchors bring in foot traffic and create the opportunity to convert students, faculty and staff into regular shoppers, says John Bemis, executive vice president and director of leasing for Jones Lang LaSalle's retail group.

But, there are negatives. The foot traffic created by colleges often occurs before the retailers are even open — so retailers don't get the full benefit. And, compared to other demographic groups, college students have far less discretionary income.

Still, it's better than having a dark space. Another center in Kent, Wash., Tarragon Development's Kent Station, is anchored by an AMC Theater and Green River Community College. The college has occupied 22,000 square feet in the open-air center since September 2005. It brings roughly 500 people to Kent Station daily.

“Green River is a complementary use to the rest of the center because classes are held during the day throughout the week and the peak shopping time is in the evening and on the weekend,” says Kristin Jensen, senior development manager for Kent Station. “Our retailers, especially the restaurants, are happy to have the college at the center.”