WESTBROOK — The Verso Corp. announced last month that it will close its Androscoggin Mill plant in Jay, permanently eliminating 310 jobs.

After suffering decades of shuttered businesses, Maine is at a turning point. Decisions the state government makes now will have dramatic effects on the growth or decline of our economy.

The choice before Mainers looks simple: To fight each other to the death for the last lumber job left in the state, or to change the kinds of industries that want to do business here.

The Portland Press Herald’s coverage of the Aug. 20 announcement named foreign competition first in the list of reasons given by executives to explain the closure of the Verso paper plant.

Corporate leadership complained about the plant’s tax assessment, and Mainers of a certain political sensibility will see this as a reason to argue for lower property tax rates.

They are wrong. A corporation will always want lower taxes – and can always find them somewhere. Foreign competition is the reason companies like Verso can demand these concessions: The work done at the Jay plant could be performed by lower-paid workers elsewhere.

Short-term thinkers will suggest slashing wages, but that’s not a real solution, just a race to the bottom. The way to keep jobs in Maine is to make sure that businesses can’t move elsewhere to cut costs, because the work can’t be done more cheaply elsewhere – because low-wage workers elsewhere don’t have the skills and knowledge that Maine workers do.

I’m writing this in a laboratory 45 minutes south of Jay, where I’m building an apparatus to study laser-cooled atoms. We will use that device to compare data collected here in Maine with the results of experiments that we will remotely conduct on the International Space Station.

I’m fortunate to have this high-tech job. I got it because I received an excellent scientific education at the University of North Carolina and the University of Texas.

Public investment in those universities – and others, like the schools in Madison, Wisconsin, Boulder, Colorado, and elsewhere – have provided their states with immense economic returns. They also provide us with a model for growing a high-tech economy in and around Portland.

The University of Maine System educates about 35,000 students. The flagship Orono campus has 11,000 undergraduate and graduate students, but it’s two hours north of Portland and four hours north of Boston.

In the Portland area, the University of Southern Maine is the second largest school in the system, teaching 7,500 students in the state’s metropolitan heart, where there is enormous potential to foster high-tech economic growth. Investing in USM will grow the number of jobs available to Mainers, while also improving the quality of those jobs and ensuring their security in the future.

Expanding the USM engineering, natural and applied sciences departments – physics, computer science or biochemistry, for example – will prepare a talented workforce with the skills needed for jobs in fields from semiconductor research to pharmaceutical development.

Collaboration between USM faculty and local industry can help to move academic research into commercial applications. This will be a slow process – building a talented workforce and incubating high-tech businesses will take time – but it’s the best path forward for the state’s economy.

Unfortunately, USM has seen dramatic cuts to its budget during the LePage administration. The physics department has been reduced to two full-time faculty members – just two professors to teach all the physics classes required by 7,500 students, leaving scant time to conduct scientific research.

The faculty members I’ve met at USM are smart, engaged and highly effective, but they are too few to meet the needs of USM’s students or the state of Maine.

The USM students I’ve met are also bright, motivated and intellectually curious, but many are despondent about their job prospects here. Most plan to leave the state, not because they want to, but because the high-tech professions they prepared for don’t exist here – yet.

The University of Maine System anticipates a $69 million budget shortfall by 2019. If Mainers do not choose to fund their higher educational system, the future of the state’s universities is uncertain, and the future of its economy is in question. Now is the time for us to invest in our universities – to invest in our economy, and in our future.