The concert hall audience witnessed the last dozen steps in Bob Alberti's path to a diploma. Unseen were the 32 years leading up to them.

There were hints, though. Wrinkles near the eyes, a bit of gray in the beard. Onstage, clenching that diploma, Alberti pointed to the balcony, where his mother, wife and three children were snapping photos.

"Way to go, Bob!"

Alberti started at the University of Minnesota in 1980 and, with gaps along the way, took classes for 20 years. Graduation was always his goal. But there were other goals, too -- starting a company, a family, a comedy duo.

This commencement season at the University of Minnesota, the four-year college degree might be the most celebrated and closely watched. But the small ceremony of the U's College of Continuing Education honored the bachelor's degrees that took too long to complete, that sputtered and stopped and started again.

"Life gets in the way," said JoAnn Hanson, a senior academic adviser in the college. "To come back and finish is a big deal."

An early start

Alberti, now 49, never suffered from lack of direction. He knew he wanted to work with computers from the moment he sat down at a terminal. It was 1977, and he was in high school in St. Francis. He needed no instruction and soon was rewriting the program's code.

"You know the part in Harry Potter, when he gets on the broom for the first time? His hair stands on end," Alberti said. "That's what happened with me and computers."

His father had never graduated from high school, much less college, but Alberti wanted to major in computer science. He chose the University of Minnesota because he had long been hacking into its mainframe. "So I already knew everybody," he said. "It was like coming down to be with my friends."

But he quickly discovered that he had no study skills. When the calculus class he needed was full, an adviser told him to take honors calculus instead. This moment he compares to "The Simpsons."

"You know that one when Bart is dropped into that class that's making jokes about double derivatives?" he said. "'Get it, Bart? Get it?'"

Alberti failed that class. He soon started a technology company, which "distracted me just a little from my studies." He struggled to pay tuition. Things spiraled, as they would a few years later, after Alberti started school again. That time, as a university employee, he helped invent the Gopher protocol, an alternative to the World Wide Web. He juggled conferences, papers and fraternal twins and then another son.

"I was starving, supporting myself, working four jobs," he said. "In the end, I just blew up."

Things change, and don't

In 2006, Alberti was browsing in Borders Books downtown when a man jumped out from behind a shelf and said, "How come you haven't finished your college degree?" Turns out the U's College of Continuing Education had an outreach table in the store. "He grabbed me by the elbow, led me over to the table and signed me up," he said.

Alberti decided to take it as a sign. He had realized that "if I didn't get my butt in gear, my kids were going to graduate from college before me."

Re-enrolling, on a part-time basis, was the easy part. Alberti then had to convince himself that he could learn in a classroom, complete an essay, finish a reading -- things he battled the first time around.

"Coming off the '80s and '90s, I had a full-fledged case of student PTSD," he said. "I don't even say that lightly."

He praises the U's Program for Individualized Learning and its advising for leading him through, melding his experience with other courses to create a bachelor's in information security management.

"All of that knowledge and experience he has with information security, he's able to bring that to bear in his degree through projects," Hanson said.

The program has been discontinued, and instead adult students can enroll in Multidisciplinary Studies. Enrollment was low, advising needs were high and budgets were tight, said Bob Stine, an associate dean in the College for Continuing Education.

Alberti's graduation won't count toward the U's closely-tracked four- or six-year graduation rates, which have improved over time. Students who take longer are "kind of in that unspoken percent," Stine said. But the college does monitor older students' progress from their transfer into the college, he said.

"We certainly take credit for them."

'I'm just so proud'

A mix of 20-somethings and older students slowly filled the front of Ted Mann Concert Hall on Saturday -- a processional set to a brass performance of "Pomp and Circumstance." Alberti's mother, Char, gazed down at her son in the front row.

"He's like a dog that gets a hold of your pants and you can't shake him off," she said later. "I'm just so proud of him."

Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie gave the commencement address, telling the story of how he, after enrolling at Iowa State University to study biochemistry, dropped out. "It didn't fit," he said. "Maybe you can relate to that." He and his wife returned to school and finished their degrees. Ritchie praised those in the graduating class who "overcame those hurdles, the families and everything else that's there and also calling on your time.

"Your contribution to our world and our community will be great."

As Alberti crossed the stage to receive his diploma, he abandoned the neat line of students for a second, to shake Ritchie's hand.

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168