Rep. Connie Morella, a first-term Republican from Maryland, believes that the "time has come to train for peace as we have for war."

The time, in sad fact, is long overdue, but that's a gray tale for another day. Morella's wise thought comes when world governments -- profligates in death -- are spending more than $2.4 billion a day on war or war preparation.

The congresswoman's specific proposal is legislation introduced last week to establish a five-year, $5 million annual demonstration program that would pay tuition and education costs for qualified college students. In return, they would be committed to two years of service in the Peace Corps.

The program would enroll juniors and seniors in courses in the language, culture, economy and history of future host countries. In the summers before going abroad, the future volunteers would work among America's poor, a domestic Third World found in every city and rural area.

Morella's proposal, similar to Title II of the Voluntary National Service and Education Demonstration Act introduced in the Senate last March by Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.), is, in its worthy essence, a Peace Corps recruitment bill. A shot in the arm -- and leg, foot, spine and every nerve end -- is needed now for the Peace Corps. It has been creatively led by Loret Ruppe for the past seven years, but in the Reagan era, survival, not expansion, has been the program's major accomplishment. The mid-1960s Peace Corps had 15,000 volunteers. Now it has 5,300.

The allusion by Morella to training "for peace as we have for war" refers to the program on which her and Pell's bills are modeled: the Reserve Officers Training Corps. The Pentagon currently has some 108,000 collegians on 1,200 campuses drilling, polishing rifles and studying what is grandly called "military science." ROTC, sent packing from U.S. campuses in the 1960s and early '70s when Vietnam was a national specter, is back, with only a few faculties challenging its worth or mission. Students, strapped for tuition, routinely say that they put up with ROTC because the money is good.

Supporters of Morella's and Pell's legislation -- and the number deserves to be large -- should be heartened in having an alternative to the ROTC. The opportunity is present for the peace movement to work hard for this program and, if that's not enough, which it probably won't be, twice as hard. A budget of $5 million a year for a college Peace Corps program is still less than 1 percent of the ROTC's obese $535 million annual outlay. But the wealth of an idea is more powerful than the wealth of a program.

Sargent Shriver, the Peace Corps' first director, said last September during the program's 25th-anniversary celebration that "the Peace Corps seeks peace through service, not through economic strength or military power ... Volunteers come home realizing that there are billions of human beings not enraptured by our pretensions or practices or morals, billions of human beings with whom we must live in peace. The volunteers learn that there's more to life than money, more to life than the latest styles in clothes, cars or cosmetics."

The Peace Corps training program would be funded for five years. At that time, the secretary of education would offer an evaluation. She or he will likely come in with one of three reports: (1) the program went nowhere because students yawned, (2) more study is needed, (3) let's quadruple funding because applications are higher than anyone in the House, Senate or Oval Office dared imagine.

The safest bet is No. 3. The evidence is ample and arresting that college graduates want to join the Peace Corps even without the incentive of two years of free education. The ratio of qualified applicants to acceptances is currently 6 to 1.

Idealism, contrary to what much of the media persist in believing, is strong on American campuses. If a choice were offered between postgraduate service in the military or in the Peace Corps, can it be doubted that college kids would rather go to Honduras with a shovel and a dream than with a gun and a mind-set?

The Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, the initiator of the Peace Corps training program, says "I put this idea forth not in competition with ROTC but in conjunction with ROTC."

What's wrong with competing with the military for public money? Is militarism that sacrosanct? It's regrettable that an alleged liberal like Hesburgh didn't say the opposite: that the ROTC budget should be cut a few million dollars and given to the Peace Corps. And after the first cut, another one -- until the day when the Peace Corps is getting $535 million and ROTC $5 million. Then if the military wants more money, let it run a bake sale.