Education Secretary Terrel Bell is the kind of official you think you'd be if you were crazy enough to go into government service: unpretentious, unambitious, unstuffy and unwilling to let common sense take a back seat to bureaucratic rigidity.

He is also the sort of official you'd probably turn out to be: frustrated when common sense turns out to be an unreliable basis for making policy.

Take the obscure little case of Grove City vs. Bell, now in the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Grove City is a small, private college in Pennsylvania, whose quaint notion is that it wants to be left free of federal control. The government has a requirement that all schools receiving federal financial assistance file assurances of compliance with the civil rights law, which can mean anything from nondiscrimination to making school buildings accessible to wheelchairs. Bell's predecessors insisted that Grove City file the assurance.

Grove City decided that it would prefer to forgo federal aid, and did so. No good. Some of its students receive federal grants or guarnateed loans -- even though the money goes directly to the students and not, as more typically happens, to the school -- and that, say government lawyers, makes it subject to the compliance requirements.

Terrel Bell's recourse would be to common sense: "I'm inclined to believe that the Congress didn't intend to say that the fact that a student who is recipient of a guaranteed student loan comes to my campus, if I'm the college president, brings me under all these rules and requirements and that therefore I'm involved in the necessity of installing elevator shafts and enforcing the dress-code regulations and doing all the federal reporting that can easily run to $50,000-$60,000 a year."

Moreover, he notes, Grove City has not been accused of violating anyone's civil rights -- only failure to file assurances that it will not do so. Absent a complaint, Bell would leave Grove City in peace. Common sense.

But there's another side of the coin. If you leave Grove City alone, on the basis that it gets no direct governmental aid, what do you do about openly segregationist institutions that decide to circumvent civil rights requirements by forgoing direct federal aid?

Perhaps surprisingly for a member of the Reagan Cabinet, Bell responds:

"If the school was not complying with the Civil Rights Act, if it was discriminating, then, by golly, I would not want to excuse anybody."

As so frequently happens, common sense turns out to be an unreliable guide. In the case of a Grove City, Bell resents the notion that "the student is just the funnel through which you send aid to an institution" and "far-out" legal interpretations that try to drag everybody under the federal tent. But in the case of Bob Jones University and Goldsboro Christian School, which openly discriminate against blacks, he is out of step with his president.

"I don't think you can be the recipient of tax-exempt status and be free to discriminate," he says. "I just don't see that."

Even for a religious institution? "I don't think religion should enter into it," says Bell, a lifelong Mormon, "not unless you were operating a school that taught nothing but religion, just a divinity school, with no other discipline. I just don't believe in discipline. I just don't believe in discrimination. There was no happier day in my life than when the Mormon Church changed its position about blacks holding the priesthood. I was elated."

Some of Bell's common-sense notions are easier -- philosophically, if not legally. He thinks it absurd that the federal government should be stuck with reviewing dress codes to see whether they discriminate sexually, or that he should be in the position of requiring schools to make their buildings accessible by wheelchair, whether or not they have any handicapped students.

For Bell, the controversies that beset his young agency are questions of equity, not political ideology and decidely not empire-building. Indeed this unlikely Cabinet officer is now completing plans to dismantle the Department of Education and turn it into a federal foundation.

tWhen that's accomplished -- probably by October 1983 -- the 60-year-old sod farmer will move out of his rented townhouse, load the family's modest belongings into a U-Haul and head back to Salt Lake City.