Think the college-savings years fly quickly? Just wait until school begins. One minute, parents are hauling heavy milk crates up four flights in a freshman dorm. Before they can catch their breath, their kids are grown up and graduating—and the college loans are due.

Although super-wealthy clients are unlikely to face outstanding student loan balances, which top $1 trillion nationwide, the problem is growing among families making a mere six figures. Though they are finding college less affordable, they still don’t qualify for need-based financial aid.

Some parents who at first were hitting their college-savings targets have veered off course because of the financial crisis and the sluggish economy. Older parents may be struggling to simultaneously save for college and retirement. Others expect their kids to contribute to their educations.

According to a Wall Street Journal analysis of data from the latest-available Federal Reserve “Survey of Consumer Finances,” the ranks of those with student loan debt rose the most among upper-middle-income families—those earning $94,535 to $205,335 a year—jumping from 19.5% in 2007 to 25.6% in 2010. They owed an average of $32,869 in 2010, up from $26,639 in 2007, after inflation was taken into account, the analysis found.

Loan repayment start dates vary. Parents who acquire federal Plus loans on behalf of a child must begin repayment when the children graduate. Students have to start repaying federal Stafford loans within six months after graduating, withdrawing from school or dropping below half-time status. Private student loans may also offer grace periods.

“The six-month grace period goes very fast if you’re not in graduate school or don’t have a full-time job,” says Karen McCarthy, a policy analyst at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. Graduate students can receive deferments, although interest accrues on nonsubsidized loans during this period.

Student loan debt is sticky. It is not expunged in bankruptcy and delinquency can ruin people’s credit and or cause their wages and Social Security to be garnished. U.S. Treasury Department data cited by Bankrate.com indicates that 122,056 retirees had their Social Security checks garnished in 2012 because of delinquent student loans, up from just six people in 2000. That might be partly due to the fact that senior citizens often co-sign student loans for children or grandchildren.

So what’s the best way to tackle student debt? How can parents balance this with their retirement? How can they help new or soon-to-be grads get their financial bearings? What happens if children end up unemployed or underemployed? And what should debt-laden students heading to graduate school bear in mind?

Getting organized is the most important step, says McCarthy. Students should use the U.S. Department of Education’s National Student Loan Data System (www.nslds.ed.gov) to identify the current holders of their federal loans and find out how to get in touch with them. They should also gather this information for private loans.

Borrowers of federal student loans who graduate, leave school or drop below half-time status are required by law to receive exit counseling. Many schools now provide this online through StudentLoans.gov, McCarthy says. The Web site includes a calculator that estimates a person’s total loan obligation upon graduation.