Friday the 13th was a great day for college students looking for free financial aid: Pell Grant increases became a highlight of the economic stimulus bill, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Everyone knows there’s a lot at stake with this legislation, so the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives drove a hard bargain with each other. When all the dust settled, the final bill still had many of its original financial aid provisions, including Pell Grant increases, more work-study jobs, and a larger, simpler tax credit for tuition and related college expenses.

The new tax credit won’t kick in until next year’s tax season (spring 2010), but the increased Pell Grants will be available for college and career training programs after July 1, 2009, to those qualifying students who completed a federal financial aid application. For the upcoming school year (2009-2010), the largest possible Pell Grant will be $5,350; the following year (2010-2011), the maximum Pell increases to $5,550. In addition to providing for Pell Grant amount increases, the new legislation also reserved enough money to make Pell funding available to 800,000 more students, for a total of about 7 million Pell Grant recipients.

The federal work-study program also got a financial infusion, enabling it to offer thousands more jobs to college students. Job training for adults, particularly in the healthcare field, was also robustly financed. Since pursuing either a college degree or in-demand job training (or re-training) is a shrewd strategy in a high-unemployment economy, it makes sense to take advantage of these government-supported opportunities while they’re on offer. Whether you get a degree or a career training certificate, Pell Grant increases may help you pay for more of your education program than ever before. This is the time to go back to school.