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The student loan system has “layers and layers of dysfunction”

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A person wearing a mortarboard.

About 60 percent of those who went to college had to take out student loans to pay for it.  Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

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Everyone wants to talk about student loan debt.

Kai Ryssdal and Molly Wood, for one. The incoming Biden administration and leading Democrats for another. There’s a robust discussion in the Make Me Smart Facebook group and, oh yeah, some 42 million Americans burdened with $1.6 trillion in college debt probably want to talk about it, too.

Will in New Orleans is just one listener who called in asking for us to talk about that debt — specifically, forgiving a big chunk of it.

“What would potentially be the effect of this on the U.S. economy? And is this feasible as an executive order if and when Congress fails to act?” he asked.

To find out, we called up Susan Dynarski. She’s a professor of public policy, education and economics at the University of Michigan, and today she helps us look beyond our own monthly payments and inject a little nuance into the conversation.

We’ll talk about how her own thinking around student loan forgiveness has evolved, what all that debt does to the economy on a macro and micro level, and the deeper reforms this country needs to actually fix the crisis.

“There’s just layers and layers of dysfunction here,” Dynarski said. “If you were hoping for a very simple economic story, it’s not.”

Because like so many things, if you push a little here, pull a little there, there are a lot of ripple effects through the economy.

Later in the show, we’ll get an update on the state of the U.S. Postal Service and hear from listeners who are looking a little closer at their Christmas trees and the logo on their Marketplace mugs. Plus, everyone’s favorite intern answers the Make Me Smart question.

When you’re done listening, tell your Echo device to “make me smart” for our daily explainers. This week, we’re really in the spirit of the season, explaining gift wrap, Toys for Tots and holiday decor. Also, don’t forget to subscribe to our newsletter! You can find the latest issue here.

Finally, if you liked this episode, you’ll love our recent episode of “This Is Uncomfortable,” about a woman who worked in a call center hounding people for student loan payments — while straining to pay down student debt of her own.

Here’s everything we talked about today:

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