A Secondary Market for Graduate Degrees?

I recently finished the Knight-Bagehot Fellowship at Columbia. It’s a one-year program that lets business journalists take classes across the university to “enhance their understanding and knowledge of business, economics and finance.” One of the program’s perks, and there are many (including dinners with the likes of Paul Volcker, Jamie Dimon, and Joseph Stiglitz), is that you can get an M.S. degree from Columbia’s journalism school by taking just six additional credits. Considering it usually takes 30 credits, and about $53,000, to get one of those, it’s a pretty good deal.


Back in 2006 I got my M.S. from the J-school, the old-fashioned way. So during my Bagehot tenure, I didn’t take a single additional class there. And yet, come graduation day, they gave me a second diploma. Expecting just the certificate in economics and business journalism that comes with the fellowship, I was too stunned to say anything as they handed it to me up on stage, and I certainly wasn’t going to give it back. But what the heck am I going to do with two degrees from the same school?

Normally, if you have two of the same thing — a pair of shoes, a blender — you can sell one, or trade it for something else. The point is, there’s a secondary market for most things; they have value to other people. Not so with diplomas, which represent knowledge and earned experience — human capital that can’t really be transferred.

There are a lot of unemployed people out there, presumably some of them with college degrees they don’t feel they’re getting proper value for, and would like to sell. Hypothetically speaking, is there any way to glean value from a degree you’re not using, or to create some kind of secondary market for a diploma? Would love to hear your ideas.

Leave A Comment

Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.



View All Comments »
  1. Katie Cunningham says:

    Many gov’t contracts require X number of people with Y level degrees. It’s rather arbitrary, as they tend to count ANY Masters or Doctorates as the same (You can have a developer with a Masters in French Poetry, and he can charge as much as the developer with a Masters in CS).

    You could rent out your Masters to contracts that have an talented pool of individuals who, for whatever reason, don’t have the advanced degrees required. They give you the difference between the BS and MS, and they can continue to qualify for the work.

    Not the most ethical action, but I don’t think requiring advanced, expensive degrees for work that doesn’t require it is ethical either.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 0
    • fred says:

      Abstracting this, it’s pretty clear that with neither the degree itself nor the qualities it represents being transferable, the only “secondary” market is actually for your affiliation, and it’s probably quite large.

      Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
    • Roguish says:

      I think there’s a less cynical version of this which relates to contracts and consultants. In my line of work private consultancies gain contracts partly on the basis of the credentials of the lead project manager. This person always has at least a master’s degree and significant professional association credentials. But they rarely do much of the actual work, instead handing it out to more junior, less qualified staff. Smart customers make sure they have in writing how much time the lead consultant will spend on the project, but not all customers are smart. Either way, no matter how much or little work gets done by the person with the degree, this person stands in the background as the go-to person when there are problems, as the trouble shooter. And their presence, however nominal, gives customers confidence that there is likely to be someone in the consultancy team who knows what they’re doing. So, to generalise, a person who has unused professional credentials could leverage these by lending their name to a group of people who don’t have said credentials in a similar way. Actually this happens a lot. My kids went to a tutorial class after school and it worked the same. There was one senior teacher who implicitly guaranteed the work of the less-experienced staff who actually did the teaching. I suppose the question is how far you can take this model. Can you instil confidence through your credentials while doing absolutely no work or supervision yourself? Well, I think that does risk becoming a cynical exercise. It’s like asking whether you can fool some of the people some of the time. Of course you can.

      Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
  2. Gary Temple says:

    Why stop at degrees? Surely there’s a whole host of embellishments which could be bought and sold in the quest for the perfect CV. Those flunked A levels: maybe I could borrow someone else’s A grades for the purposes of applying for a job. And that 6 month gap in my career where I took a career break, surely someone else’s 6 month volunteering stint building hospitals in sub-Saharan Africa would look better that what I really did with that time.
    And then there’s the personal life. I could take on the perfect and long-lasting marriage, glossing over my own divorces and failures.
    Maybe they could all be purchased on an annuity, no success, no fee basis. If I get the job then I pay off a small amount each month from my artificially enhanced salary towards the providers of those extra special items that got me the job in the first place…

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0
  3. Megan W. says:

    I have two HS diplomas. One from my town school. Then I went to a one-year nursing program at the county Vo-Tech HS. (LPN). Got that diploma too. (For me, it was something of a gap year experience). Both are NYS diplomas, same size, shape and everything.

    As I went on to a 4 year college and majored in something else entirely, it mostly has made for interesting cocktail party chatter.

    (As an interesting aside, my Grandparents NYS diplomas circa 1917 are exactly the same as mine, 1988/9. NYS was (is?) very consistent about that).

    Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0
  4. MikeM says:

    I don’t know about a secondary market, but it kind of devalues your first MS when you find out that they just hand them out to unsuspecting scholars who didn’t even really meet the requirements, doesn’t it?

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 14 Thumb down 0
  5. Brian says:

    How can there be a secondary market for something that represents knowledge? If you don’t have the knowledge, what does the diploma mean? If you could sell or transfer diplomas, then they would become meaningless (some say they already are).

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1
  6. Eric Wilson says:

    Only an economist would ask something like this. Its like asking “how can I take some of my memories that I don’t need any more and trade them for candy.”

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 44 Thumb down 1
    • Jeff says:

      The problem with this is that the author is not an economist, but a journalist, with a few econ classes under his belt.

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 0
      • Matthew Philips says:

        This is correct.

        Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0
      • fred says:

        Don’t sell yourself short, Matt. Only one very narrow definition of “economist” requires formal education in the subject matter (which varies so much in quality that the definition is not very useful, unless you further restrict it to “quality” institutions). History is replete with examples of credentialed economists.

        Thumb up 3 Thumb down 2
  7. Felix says:

    A good group to ask would be scientists. They have faced a rather dismal job market, especially this past decade. They may have some good answers since many of them have PhDs.

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
  8. Anastasia says:

    Create a mixed-media art project critiquing the redundancy of credentials in higher education? Then sell to the highest bidder of course.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 0