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.

Katie Cunningham

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.

Gary Temple

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...

Megan W.

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).


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?


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).

Eric Wilson

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."


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

Matthew Philips

This is correct.


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.


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


The problem with a secondary degree for diplomas is that it's not the piece of paper (the physical diploma) that's the valuable thing, but the knowledge and skill that it represents.

It's like a black belt in karate. I used to teach children's karate classes, and many young students would come in asking how long it would take them to get a black belt. The head sensei, on these occasions, would simply take a black karate belt out of his bag and hand it to the student. "Now you've got a black belt," he'd say. "Do you still want to train?" And of course, they would. It's not the belt that was important, but the feeling that you had that skill and training to back it up.

A diploma is just a piece of paper. Unless you can rent out the knowledge in your brain, à la Matrix, I don't see a secondary market for diplomas being at all valuable.


You realize that you are assuming a certain model of what a college degree is, and what getting one is like.

- that knowledge and skills are gained in college
- that those knowledge and skills are of value
- that a person would derive a feeling of satisfaction from gaining that skill and knowledge

I'd trade my diploma (and all of the skills and training it represents) for that black belt (and all of the skill and training it represents). I'd consider trading it for just the belt itself. (I need to be able to keep the memory of the process though, so I don't get suckered a second time.)

Have you ever heard someone refer to a bad movie as "two hours of my life I'll never get back" ? Well college was five years of my life I'll never get back, like a really extended bad movie.

Which brings me to the main question of the posting, how to sell an extra degree. I notice that Mr. Phillips specifically mentions graduate degrees. Perhaps that is in anticipation of my opinion, which is that a Bachelor's degree has no value.

None of the objections raised above are the real reason there is no secondary market for a degree, the real reason is that after an initial "break-in" period the market price would trend to zero. There is a huge supply and since people only need them for a few minutes, if at all, a very small number could be shared among a large number of people through co-ownership or even rental, at a cost lower than renting a tuxedo. (tuxedos wear out)



What about a secondary market where you place all your transcripts (from both degrees), then colleges "BID" on how much they will charge you to take your current credits and allow you to upgrade to, say, a Ph.D.

For instance, let's say that after posting all your transcripts, two universities "pursue" you. One offers to "upgrade" you to an MBA if you take only 18 more credit hours (at X dollars per credit hour), while the other one offers you a Ph.D in Journalism for X dollars AND a dissertation.

They are seeking to attract your business by making offers to attract you.

I have often wanted some really smart guidance officer to look at my transcripts (a major in Philosophy), tally up my credits in this and that, then tell me, "If you take only 6 more credits in ABC, you can ALSO get a bachelor degree in XYZ--or, if you prefer, you can take an additional 18 credits and wind up with a Masters Degree in [something cool]."

I imagine a LOT of people would go back to school if they knew that they had some truly clear and legitimate "roadmap" to leverage their current academics into something bigger and better.



To me, as a Masters holder, it's a simple self-examination of the abilities that come with relevant coursework and unique combination of experience in order to seek out alternative fits. The same set of qualifications typical for one, slow moving, very recession-ized discipline will be seen as a very unique, adaptable, and attractive troop of talents to a new, forward-thinking, fast paced environment. Simply put: do not be afraid to leave the comfort zone. (Job hunting timeline thus far: 9 months)


"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?"

Simply, moonlighting is the best way to utilize a degree your day job doesn't, so that's some sort of secondary market. As far as gleaning value from a degree I'm not using, I find the best way to do this with my MS and MBA is casually mention them at dinner parties...instant credibility!


The degree is not the asset. You are the asset, and the degree is only a (noisy) signal of your type.


You have an M.S. in journalism? I think that's even sillier than my M.A. in astronomy.

Are there such things as diploma collectors? (That is, collecting the physical pieces of paper that were awarded to other people.) It seems rather more interesting than collecting stamps, but I've never heard of this.

I've just checked ebay - of the first 100 items found by searching on 'diploma', approx 6 are appear to be genuine historical diplomata, just one at university level, and none selling for significant money.

Matthew Philips

Technically, I have TWO M.S.'s in journalism


Hi Matthew - I'd like to ask a serious question. What benefit has having a Masters degree (or 2) in journalism given you? I ask because I've been accepted to several MA journalism programs, but am now unsure if I really need to do it. This is primarily because I feel that if you're going to practice journalism, then the way to do it is to get out and do it. Thoughts?


There's a difference between the symbol and what it represents.