Diane May and Dave Robinson are the kind of rookies that police departments dream about: Both hold college degrees, can run seven miles in a blink before breakfast and have soaked up six months of round-the-clock training from top law-enforcement instructors in Maryland.

Today, May and Robinson begin work as patrol officers in the Prince George's County Police Department, the first graduates of a federally funded program known as the Police Corps to be assigned to the Washington area.

Created by Congress in 1994, the Police Corps is a hybrid of the military's ROTC programs and the Peace Corps: Recruits agree to spend at least four years as police officers in exchange for up to $30,000 in reimbursement for college expenses. The idea is to entice brainy and talented college students to serve their communities as police officers.

Though intended to train a special breed of officer, the Police Corps has struggled to actually put them on the streets. Only 237 cadets have gone through the program since the corps opened its first academies three years ago, including 44 people who will graduate this year--a tiny fraction of early projections.

The problem is not a lack of money. The Police Corps has received $90 million in federal funds and will get $30 million more in the current fiscal year. Rather, program organizers say recruiting has proved much tougher than expected, with few college students willing to sign up despite the lure of free tuition and other financial incentives.

"We recognize the big challenge for this program for the foreseeable future is recruitment," said Jeff Allison, director of the national Police Corps program, which is overseen by the Justice Department. "Ideally, we want to identify people who are freshmen and sophomores who know they want to be police officers and want to take this route to get there."

On Saturday, 18 cadets graduated from Maryland's Police Corps academy after going through 24 weeks of training at the Maritime Institute of Technology and Graduate Studies, a residential conference center in Linthicum near Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

Maryland is one of 10 states that have Police Corps academies, and its is by far the biggest. There are 14 faculty members, most on loan from law-enforcement agencies across the state.

Students live in hotel quarters at the academy and sometimes are roused in the middle of the night to respond to emergency practice drills, such as how to handle a reported burglary or carjacking. They get plenty of firearms training and are taught how to subdue suspects, negotiate with hostage takers and even deal with their superiors.

The physical fitness regimen is especially intense: three hours of daily exercise led by ex-Marines, who often put their charges through a half-mile obstacle course set up on the school grounds.

"Traditionally, police training is Lecture 101 on how to handcuff people," said Capt. J. Scott Whitney, director of Maryland's Police Corps academy. "We go out and actually do it. What these police departments get is a cop fresh out of the box, all starched up and ready to go."

Even so, their numbers have been dropping. Maryland had hoped to graduate 120 cadets in 1997, the academy's inaugural year, but wound up with only 28. Class sizes have declined since then, falling to 27 in 1998 and 18 this year.

Organizers said they are working to reverse the trend and have scheduled two separate classes for 2000, each with room for up to 40 students. But they acknowledged that it won't be easy to fill all the seats.

"I'd put these kids up against any police academy in the state. These youngsters are sharp," Whitney said. "But recruiting has been a nightmare for us. It's been a real uphill climb."

Whitney and others blamed the strong economy for the low participation, saying that few college graduates are eager to work as police officers for $30,000 a year when more lucrative jobs are readily available in fields such as technology.

As a result, Maryland's Police Corps academy has had to look far and wide for recruits. Eighty percent of its graduates have been from other states.

And although the Police Corps was designed to enlist college students while they are still undergraduates--much like the military's Reserve Officer Training Corps--virtually all of Maryland's cadets signed up after receiving their bachelor's degrees.

Many said they were interested in finding a job in law enforcement when they signed up for the Police Corps.

For instance, May and Robinson, each of whom has a degree in criminal justice, said they had tried to get jobs with the Prince George's Police Department for more than a year, but the agency wasn't hiring rookies because it didn't have many job openings.

Instead, the department suggested that May and Robinson try the Police Corps as a way to get on the force. Both gave the program rave reviews.

"We've got the best instructors in the state of Maryland, without a doubt," said Robinson, 25, who grew up in Edgewater and graduated from the University of Baltimore in 1998. "Plus, I got in the best shape of my life."

May, 39, who taught special education at an Oxon Hill private school and was a military police officer for 11 years, said she had always wanted to be a cop. "It just took me a while to find the right place," she said.

May and Robinson will receive up to six weeks of classroom training and orientation before hitting the streets as newly minted Prince George's police officers, said Maj. Tom Trodden, the department's commander for training and personnel services. They also will spend three months paired with veteran officers in a field training program.

Trodden said the department would like to hire more Police Corps graduates and plans to sponsor 10 cadets in the Maryland academy's next class. "From what I've seen so far of the program, I think they're going to be outstanding officers," he said.

CAPTION: Cpl. Steve Campbell, of the Prince George's County police, pins a badge on Officer Diane May at graduation ceremonies for the Police Corps academy.