Napolitano made the announcement in Philadelphia at Drexel University, which is among the schools chosen for the Campus Resilience Pilot Program. The effort seeks to help colleges develop and share best practices for responding to threats, violence or natural disasters.
"As we know from experience, a crisis on campus can happen without notice," she said, "whether it's an active shooter situation, a major disaster such as a hurricane or earthquake, or some other hazard that endangers lives."
The initiative is part of the Obama administration's effort to reduce gun violence, she noted. Her announcement comes two weeks before the sixth anniversary of the Virginia Tech massacre, in which a student fatally shot 32 people before killing himself.
Napolitano wouldn't specify how much the program will cost, saying only that the department is redeploying resources to pay for it.
The other six schools are Eastern Connecticut State University; Green River Community College in Auburn, Wash.; Navajo Technical College in Crownpoint, N.M.; Texas A&M University; Tougaloo College in Jackson, Miss.; and the University of San Francisco.
The initiative will entail school administrators, students and community members working with homeland security and emergency management officials to assess campus safety, develop crisis plans and train responders. The strategies will be shared with colleges across the country.
"The government can't do it by itself, campuses can't do it by themselves," Napolitano said.
Institutions chosen for the program range from urban to rural, public to private, and large to small. Some university officials said Tuesday that they were only recently notified of their selection, and aren't yet sure what form their participation will take.
At Drexel, a private school serving about 25,000 students near the heart of Philadelphia, President John Fry said campus safety stems from a combination of human expertise and technological capabilities, such as security cameras and emergency call boxes.
University police "are able to do so much more because of what the technology provides them," he said, adding that he looks forward to learning about safety strategies at other campuses.
Peter Novak, vice provost for student life at the University of San Francisco, said participating in the program "will be incredibly valuable to us as an institution and to the community." The Jesuit Catholic school serves about 10,000 students in an urban environment.
"Resilience planning combines the best of emergency planning with preventive education and crisis management," Novak said in a statement.