At the age of 18, Matt Frame scored a hat trick of sorts.

He earned his high school diploma, associate degree and bachelor's degree all at the same time.

He insists he's no genius: He did it, in part, by passing standardized exams that earned him more than 90 credits — the equivalent of three years of college — while he was in middle school and high school.

His sister, Katie, did it, too.

Improbable as it sounds, their mother, Cheri Frame of Ramsey, insists that any "motivated" student can do it.

Frame, who has a consulting business called Credits Before College, is packing seminars with parents eager to hear her message: That students can save thousands of dollars in tuition by taking advantage of relatively little-known exams called CLEP (College-Level Examination Program) tests.

The CLEP exams were designed by the College Board in the 1960s to give working adults a chance to "test out" of introductory-level courses when returning to school.

But now the tests are gaining popularity, particularly among home schoolers, as an inexpensive way for teenagers and even preteens to accumulate credits before they ever set foot on campus.

Frame, who home-schooled her three children, says she always assumed that they would go off to college one day. But the prospect of three tuition bills sent her in search of alternatives.

"What I found was, it was one of two choices: Either the student was going into debt or the parents were taking out loans," she said. "I wasn't interested in either."

The CLEP tests, Frame says, helped her two eldest kids, now 22 and 20, slash the cost of a four-year degree to about $6,000 — the equivalent of one semester at the University of Minnesota.

"My heart's goal is to help students graduate from college without debt," she said. "CLEPPING," as she calls it, is one way to do it.

'More than just credits'

To most people, a college education is about far more than passing tests, and skeptics question the value of credits earned this way.

"Learning is more than just accumulating the credits," said Linda L. Baer, a private consultant and former vice chancellor of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system.

Without classroom debates and rigorous scholarship, notes David Weerts, a higher education specialist at the University of Minnesota, "what you're losing, then, is the richness of what a college learning experience is about."

But Frame argues that the "traditional college experience" — with dorm life and football games — may not be worth the price anymore. If CLEP tests can shave off even some of those costs, she says, they're worth exploring.

"We're asking students to step off the beaten path."

Starting in seventh grade

Kaeden Metz, of Mound, was in seventh grade when he took his first CLEP test. His mother, Kellee, had taken him to one of Frame's workshops and decided to give it a try.

The test in computer science was reputed to be one of the easiest, and Kaeden took a prep course through his home-school group. When he passed the exam, earning his first three college credits, he got to pick his reward.

"We took him to LEGO Land," said his mother. "It was a little incongruous, and we all understood that," she admits. But after all, he was still a kid, and toys still appealed.

Now, as a 16-year-old sophomore, Kaeden has 30 college credits. "He would like to get his associate degree by the end of high school, which I think is in striking distance for him," his mother said.

Kathie Montognese, of the College Board, says students like Kaeden are the exception. Last year, 815 Minnesotans took one of the 33 CLEP exams — in such subjects as biology, algebra, American literature and U.S. history — and only 22 percent were younger than 18.

But she says she's surprised the numbers are so low.

"We call it the hidden gem of the College Board," said Montognese, of Brooklyn Park, who is a senior manager for the program. "There are definitely more students that can take advantage of this, but they just don't know about it."

The CLEP tests are a sister program of the more popular Advanced Placement, or AP, tests offered in high school. The big difference is that there's no required class, and anyone can take CLEP tests, which cost $80 apiece. If passed, each test is worth anywhere from three to 12 credits.

That is, if a college accepts them. Nationally, nearly 3,000 colleges and universities recognize some or all CLEP credits, but they vary widely. The University of Minnesota's Twin Cities campus accepts only three tests. The Duluth and Morris campuses accept nearly all, and all CLEP credits are accepted at the 31 schools in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system.

Montognese says the tests can be "a tuition saver and money saver." But she doubts that most people could compete with Cheri Frame's kids at accumulating credits. "That's quite a feat."

CLEP, PSEO and Edison

For Matt Frame, the process started at the kitchen table in the summer after eighth grade. He and his sister Katie, who had just finished seventh grade, joined several friends in a study group once a week, preparing for their first college test, in computers. He failed the first try but passed the second. By the end of the summer, both Matt and Katie had their first college credits.

After that, Cheri Frame said she tailored her children's schoolwork around the CLEP tests, using them as final exams. In all, Matt tested out of 90 credits. Katie, who says she got over 100, insists it wasn't especially stressful.

"It's just learning good study skills and being willing to put in the time," she said.

Both siblings completed their degrees by taking college courses in 11th and 12th grades, for free, through Minnesota's Postsecondary Enrollment Options program. That allowed them to pile up enough credits for a high school diploma, an associate's in business from Anoka-Ramsey Community College and a bachelor's in history (Matt) and psychology (Katie) from Thomas Edison State College in New Jersey. Edison, which says it has "one of the most flexible transfer credit policies in the country," awarded the degrees without requiring any courses of its own.

Matt is now a congressional aide in Washington, while Katie is a fitness trainer. Their younger brother, Levi, 18, graduated from high school last spring with three years' worth of college credits. None has any college debt, Cheri says.

Dawnette Cigrand, the school counseling Program Director at Winona State University, said she can see the appeal of trying to keep college costs down. But she's troubled about what's lost.

"Thinking of education as just credits that they just need to check off their list, that's a little disconcerting to me," she said. "I would argue that just because you can pass the test doesn't mean that you have mastered that subject area."

Weerts agrees. "It's sort of like there's less and less appetite for complexity," he said, and a growing impatience to get the college degree "out of the way so we can get a job."

At the same time, he gives Frame credit for jump-starting the conversation. "What Cheri is doing is a very innovative approach to thinking about education and cost savings," he said. The key, he added, is to make sure "we're not losing things in the process."