As an employee at a community college, I'm always amazed at the buzz of activity that happens on the grounds. Sure, seeing students contently studying their textbooks at an outdoor table or seeing faculty exchange important research ideas over a cup of coffee are common scenes . . . but I'm even more excited when I see an older individual, a group of adult friends, or a member of the local business community strolling the campus, making use of a public event or community class.

Contrary to what you might believe, you can use facilities of state-funded colleges and universities. Here are some options you might enjoy exploring — for free or at very minimal costs.

1. Campus tours

College and universities offer free campus tours, generally year-round. The idea in doing so is new student recruitment, but the tours are given to anyone — it's simply a good PR move. Tours are often student led, so you can learn more about the institution from someone who actually uses it. The tour is a good way for you to see what a college offers, both for enrolled students and non-students. Sometimes you can even score college promotional material and swag (think bumper stickers, key chains, pens, etc.) just for going on the tour.

2. Athletic and Fine Arts Events

You won't be able to score a front-row ticket to the 2013 Notre Dame Fighting Irish season home games, but many smaller-scale sporting events, musical performances, dance shows, and theater rehearsals (or even, in some cases, full productions) can be free. Of course, availability varies college to college, so check online schedules or call the college's public relations office to ask about options.

3. University Hotel

Are you traveling to a college town on business or for a vacation? If so, see if the college has available rooms for rent. Some institutions (like the University of Iowa and Sam Houston State University) have university hotels, but others (like these options in the midwest) rent rooms for summer stays. Staying on campus is not only cheaper in most cases than any commercial chain, but also provides a unique regional experience.

4. Library

State-funded college and university libraries have knowledge available for anyone. So walk in, stroll the stacks, or curl up in a comfy reading area for a welcome escape. For some services — like database usage or copy center access — an active student ID may be needed. Otherwise, enjoy the unique offerings of a college library that has maps, audio recordings, reference books, and more that may not be in your local public library.

5. Community Education Classes

Ever been interested in canning your own vegetables? Learning to knit? Knowing basic entrepreneurial accounting? Conversational Spanish? Check your local college's community/public education office to see what classes are available. The registration process is usually very simple, and the cost is minimal (think $50 for a 10-hour course, spread over 4 weeks), as it generally aims to cover only the cost of the instructor's time and basic supplies. This can be a minimally-committed way to explore an emerging personal interest or learn a new skill.

6. Summer Camp

When college and university students leave campus for the summer, administrators want to make good use of their vacated facilities. Summer camp offerings (like those in certain disciplines such as science or music, or those for a particular purpose, like team cheerleading techniques) are popularly found. Some camps at universities are no cheaper than community day camps or park-held overnight camps, but some, especially for younger kids, are reasonably priced. Others have scholarships available for financial-need applicants or discounts for institution alumni. The college's Student Life office is a good first contact to learn what's coming up.

7. Lectures

Open lectures — in auditorium halls, large classrooms, or meeting rooms — are some of the best free offerings on a college campus. Learn about star gazing from an astronomy expert, hear about an anthropologist's latest travels, or ponder a political scientist's analysis of the latest scandal — for free! Invite a buddy, grab a latte from the local campus coffeehouse, and enjoy a stroll through campus en route to the expert talk. Some lectures may take place within a specific department's facilities whereas others may be held in more central facilities, so check individual department webpages and calendars as well as general ones posted by a college's PR office to learn what's available.

If you are lucky enough to have a community college or four-year university campus near you, make use of it. Don't be shy about visiting — when you do, you'll discover a whole new world of available education and social and personal growth opportunities.

7 Ways Your Local College Can Serve You