The ballooning cost of higher education has finally reached the national stage, thanks to this year's presidential race. Now soaring loan debt and its effects on people long after they've thrown their caps in the air is triggering bells, namely for choking retirement savings.

“The effects are being felt by all age brackets,” says Andrew J. Paladino, CPA, MSF, of the Paladino Financial Group, in Timonium, Md. “Even grandparents, who either cannot fathom this or are helping out in payments.”

Last week, a 33-year-old professor told more than a dozen U.S. senators that she and her husband are carrying $170,000 in student loan debt -- with monthly payments higher than the mortgage on their Bridgewater, N.J., home. The Record newspaper quoted Mecheline Farhat Roldan, saying she felt “deceived” by her immigrant Lebanese parents who raised her to believe education was the key to success in the U.S. Farhat Roldan earns $46,000 a year teaching.

Anecdotal cases are backed by solid data. While the N.J. Department of Education puts the average student's loan debt at $19,000, those requiring graduate credentials have an average $67,000 in debt. The Center for Retirement Research at Boston College this month issued a report that student loan debt nationally has gone from $0.2 trillion in 2003 to $1.2 trillion last year. Alicia H. Munnell, lead author on the CRR's paper, “Will the Explosion of Student Debt Widen the Retirement Security Gap?” found the average student loan amount in the U.S. is $31,000 per student, as per 2013 data from the Survey of Consumer Finances, by the U.S. Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.

Writes Munnell: “If today’s working-age households had the same level of student debt as those recently leaving college, an additional 4.6 percent of households would be at risk of having inadequate income in retirement. This change represents a substantial increase in the already alarming rate of households at risk -- from 51.6 percent to 56.2 percent. The bottom line is that college costs should be included in broader policy discussions over how to improve lifelong financial security.”   

Student debt affects clients at the most important time to save for retirement, says Paladino, “when they're young and it's best to save as much as you can” to ride out market fluctuations. He cites a client couple, who both have good jobs and already worked down a $30,000 student debt to $20,000. Paladino says he urges them to put more into their 401(k) accounts. “I want them to save money outside of retirement, too. But they say, 'We have to pay this debt down.'”

There are other things to take into account when considering a college and a career, he says. The world has changed from the days that people worked for the same company 30 or 35 years. “You have to watch out for yourself, unless you control your own destiny; have some independent work on the side or have your own company.”

He also questions university choices. “Do you need an expensive undergraduate school? There are plenty of solid undergraduate choices that can lead you to a good grad school.” Paladino, who hosts "Your Financial Hour" Saturday mornings from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on 105.7FM The Fan, says he's found good ideas for clients in Lynn O’Shaughnessy's book The College Solution

Lest you think wealthier families are immune, Mary Ballin, a CFP and client advisor with Mosaic Financial Partners, in San Francisco, counts among her clients (with liquid assets of $2 million to $10 million) those with upwards of $120,000 in student debt, which runs counter to parental wishes for children to learn to live within their incomes. Some of them have paid that only to make $30,000 in their chosen careers, notes Ballin. And, depending on the outcome of pending legislation, interest rates on floating rate loans could rise, she adds. “It's very important for parents to have that conversation...and not get caught up with the emotion of Little Johnny's acceptance to some Ivy League university,” she cautions. “That piece of paper with a pretty name can get you in an ugly hole.”